Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Million Dollar Question: Whose Issue Is This?

It's amazing what a difference it makes to parent from a place of hope rather than fear, to face an event or situation in my day-to-day with the kids and, rather than panic and react, to sit for a moment and pay attention to what I'm feeling and then take the time to identify why. Is this frustration or anger or concern really about them, or is it coming from some belief or expectation or fear I have that has nothing to do with their actions in the moment? Once I make this significant distinction, I can make a conscious decision about how to address the situation, if it's even necessary. I'm no longer at the whim of my anxieties. I choose how to proceed, and quite often, my subsequent actions are calm, kind, gentle, and empathetic, whether the kids are at fault or not. The knee-jerk reactions to my fear that left me frustrated, angry, and very unlike the parent I aspire to be has found its antidotes: self-awareness, and faith.

Yesterday, for instance, Ben came down from his nap and was using one of the wooden conductors from his train set as a giant sabor tooth, roaring and making claws out of his hands while holding this tooth in his mouth. And I'll be honest, I don't like these kinds of games. When he's pretending to be some violent animal or The Grinch or a pirate or bad guy, it unsettles me, worries me, makes me wonder why he doesn't want to be the good guy, the hero, the nice animals.

When I think about it, though, I understand why. For one, we live in the mountains where wildlife abounds: deer, elk, foxes, bears, mountain lions, and coyotes in addition to the assortment of small creatures like birds, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. The deer and elk and foxes wander through our yard or through the woods behind our house regularly, munching on grass or resting in the shade of the trees. At school, they talk about the various animals and their habitats. We read dozens of books about all kinds of animals and bugs. And inevitably, I'll get these questions from Ben: why do deer and elk have antlers, why do mountain lions have sharp teeth and claws, why do bees sting, why do sharks bite, why do porcupines have pokey spines, why do skunks smell so bad, etc., etc.? And inevitably, I'll have to reply, "To protect themselves" or "To eat." To which he'll counter, "Why do they have to protect themselves?" and suddenly we're in a conversation about the cycle of life and survival and the brutal reality of the natural world.

So naturally, he acts these scenarios out. He checked out a book from the library the other day about a woolly mammoth. It's published by Smithsonian and seeks primarily to provide information about the woolly mammoth in the context of a simple plot. At one point in the book, Woolly Mammoth loses his pack and is attacked by three sabor-tooth tigers. Ultimately, he's able to fight them off with his long tusks and trunk and then goes on to reunite with his pack. So it's no suprise Ben came downstairs enacting the part of the sabor-tooth tiger, claiming he was looking for a cave in order to protect himself.

Before, I would have felt anxious about this. Why choose to be the aggressor? But in my more rational state, I can acknowledge, for one, that this role seems better than the alternative role of victim. In addition, the sabor-tooth tigers are pretty slick looking, whereas Woolly Mammoth is pretty unremarkable and galumphing. And, when I really think about it, all good stories--and even games--require conflict: they require something to work against or overcome or conquer, whether it's an animal or bad guy or act of God or self-doubt or circumstance. And in a play group of one, all roles are played by one person.

So when I step back to think about the situation, to recognize where the anxiety comes from (clearly, I don't want Ben to glorify aggression and grow up thinking it's fun to be a bad guy) and then step back to analyze what's really going on (he's a four-year-old boy pretending what he's seen in order to make sense of it, and this has nothing to do with his beliefs about violence), I can respond rationally. In this case, I simply oohed and ahhed as he roared at me, and before I knew it, he had transformed his sabor teeth into tusks and reinvented himself as a walrus, an animal I feel much more comfortable with.

Because this little boy who pretends to be a sabor-tooth tiger is the same little boy who says he wants to grow up and be a daddy to all the little kids who don't have daddies, who cheers with sincerest enthusiasm when Abby makes something on the potty, who prays for our dear friend's cat not to get sprayed by a skunk again after hearing about the ordeal, who thanks Jesus for putting stars in the sky to look pretty for us, and who makes up songs about how much he loves us. Fear is unfounded here. Joy is abounding. Nothing about them has changed, but so much about me has, thank God.

Here's to the relief of parenting in truth.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Babies 'R'n't Us Anymore

Abby and I made a whirlwind trip to Babies 'R' Us and the mall this morning while Ben was at school. It's a forty-five minute drive down the mountain and another forty-five minutes back up, which doesn't leave time for much else in a two-and-half-hour window. But we've needed to exchange a few things from Christmas, and since Abby's feeling under the weather, it seemed like a good, mellow morning activity--driving, listening to music, and chatting back and forth about the sights along the way.

It was a strange feeling to walk through Babies 'R' Us, though, like stepping into another time. It was only a few years ago that we seemed to frequent the store nearly as often as the OB's office, picking up gizmos and gadgets and linens and toys and creams and myriad gear for our darlings-to-be. Today, walking through aisles of bouncy seats, swings, bassinets, and exersaucers, all designed to keep babies cozy and comfy and content in those arduous months before they can communicate, I realized that baby territory feels foreign now--distant, almost unfamiliar. In just two years, we have come so far.

I remember it all, without question, but I find myself looking back at those days as history, and I catch myself realizing that this must be how all moms feel looking back, whether at babies or toddlers or teenagers. They've been there, done it all, and probably remember acutely the joy and the trial of each stage, but it is no longer reality, no longer familiar territory, even though they lived there once. This, I think, is where the nostalgia comes from--knowing that it used to be home but is no longer.

I think what struck me most is how far we've come from total dependency. Now, though still dependent in some ways, they are so self-sufficient. They eat, they sleep, they use (or are learning to use) the potty by themselves. They tell me what they need, they identify their feelings, they resolve conflict, they make up games, they entertain themselves, and they're navigating the sometimes bewildering territory of right and wrong. The present is all about conversations and coloring and trips to the park and singing songs and explaining why and handing over a little more responsibility each day.

Anyway, the dichotomy between past and present jolted me this morning, because the transformation occurred so quickly. Two years is not a long time, yet it is enough to change everything. Wild.

So Babies 'R' Us no longer feels like home. Now I feel at home at the library and the park and the zoo and the aquarium and the school and anywhere else in the world that I get to explore with Ben and Abby. Someday, those will no longer feel like home either, but something else will. Maybe even their own home, one day.

And probably sooner than I think, because time does, indeed, fly when you're having fun...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Nine Extraordinary, Ordinary Years

Nine years has a nice ring to it.

Josh and I celebrated our ninth anniversary last night over dinner in front of a roaring fire at a quiet, cozy restaurant here in the mountains. We shared our entrees, as we often do when two dishes sound equally tempting, getting to enjoy both that way. We sipped wine and talked about our day, about the kids, about the election in Massachusetts, about finances, about us. Aside from the rose petals scattered on the table by the restaurant in honor of the occasion, it was little different than any other meal out. But its ordinariness was its beauty and its blessing, its testimony to how much we have to celebrate: while the years continue to pass and the anniversaries continue to add up, I don't feel much different now than I did when I sat across from this amazing man in our favorite Indian restaurant in Boston so many years ago.

For that sameness, I am grateful, because it has always been good, really good, between us. Nothing about us has changed, though so much has changed around us: I still feel the same kindredness, the same attraction, the same respect, the same conviction that we were made for each other now as I did then. In fact, if anything has changed, it is that our love has grown even deeper, even surer, even more comfortable and confident. We have walked with each other, now, through significant life events. We still hold each other's hands, but now we hold two little hands, too.

There is much that lies ahead of us. Last night, we talked about where we'd be in another nine years: Ben will be thirteen, Abby eleven; our hypothetical dog may very well have lived a full life and passed on; it's impossible to say where our careers will take us: what Josh will have accomplished, what I will be doing with myself when not shuttling the kids to school or attending recitals and games and events; we'd be happy to still be living in this same house but perhaps we will have bought a home with more land or lived in a foreign country; and who knows what kind of events will have come our is all a question mark, a blank to be filled in, a life to be lived.

Herein lies the gift of "man and wife." Life, in all its triumphs and tragedies, offers enough suprises, enough drama. Marriage, by contrast, provides a precious constant: a safe haven, a quiet comfort, a welcomed respite from the craziness raging around us, a reliable refuge of fun and passion and friendship and soul-level communion, breathtaking and exhilarating for its invitation to unedited existence and vulnerability.

I like nine years. Just as I liked eight and seven and six...just as I'm sure I'll like nineteen and twenty-nine and forty-nine and sixty-nine, should we be lucky enough to live that long. For better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live, I am Josh's wife. We go to bed together and we wake up together. We pay the bills together and love the children together. We argue together and we forgive each other. We live very ordinary lives in the shadow of a love made remarkable by its consistency.

That the love we share is now normal for us, is now part of our very being, that our communion over dinner last night exists every day--this is extraordinary.

Thank you for nine extraordinary, ordinary years, Josh. I love you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Losing the Weight of the World to Grace

I feel I must bear witness to a small but extraordinary change that has occurred within me over the last week. Even as I write the sentence, I worry this new peace will fly away like a frightened bird, or a tuft of cotton--so light and seemingly ungrounded as to be blown away by the slightest stirring. But I am simultaneously acknowledging that the fear driving that worry is not founded in truth and therefore is not welcome. Acknowledging that seems to help.

It's not a change that I can take any credit for because, believe me, I've been trying hard, unsuccessfully, for months and months to produce it to no avail. No, this change can only be attributed to Grace permeating more of my heart in some divine, mysterious way. It has always been Grace that makes any genuine change in me. And the amazing thing about Grace is it has nothing to do with us, with me. I cannot make it come. I cannot will myself to believe it. I cannot convince myself of its virtue. Grace is, and Grace does, and now I am different.

The change, for me, is monumental, and I'm not sure how to fully identify it except to say that for nearly a year, I have felt as though I walk through my days with the kids in a cloud of anxiety that enshrouds all I do with them and think about them. Not anxiety about their safety or immediate well-being but about who they will become in their future. It was a state of mind that I knew was irrational, unhealthy, unfair, unfounded, and untrue, but I could not make myself stop. I could not will myself out of it. I could not change it myself, though I tried and tried and tried and cried and cried at times. I have wonderful friends who would speak such good and true things into my life about me as a mommy and about my kids as incredible people, and that helped for a time, but still this nagging worry left me reeling in a spiral of fear.

It is a terrible thing to feel enslaved to something. To feel stuck in lies. To recognize the problem and feel powerless to solve it. To flounder in a flood of circular thinking that is at once ridiculous and terrifying. Mostly it is scary, and exhausting. To parent from this place feels like walking a tightrope of discernment without being able to clearly see the rope, which hangs somewhere below in a haze of unclarity.

I'm not sure I can quite explain what happened except that I began to recognize that fear is not love. In fact, I do not think fear can love. After all, perfect Love casts out fear. As someone who knows Love, I know, therefore, that I have not been given a spirit of fear. I can acknowledge that children are a gift. If I am living out of fear, something is wrong.

So here is my small but profound revelation: when I live in this fear and anxiety, I am believing that my kids are identified by and judged by (to use Biblical terms) their "flesh,” their "sin": in worldly terms, their imperfections driven by insecurity, fear, hurt, loss, and pain. I am allowing myself to believe their flesh, choosing to judge them by this real but inaccurate piece of them. But the truth is that God, who is Love, chooses to identify them--and us--not by our flesh but by our spirit, which has somehow been hidden in (covered by, identified with) the perfection of Christ. And that truth shall set us free.

I think the degree to which we believe we are identified by Christ is the degree to which we live less and less out of our flesh—the degree to which we are freed from our flesh’s drive to make ourselves something in response to our fear and insecurity. Strangely, the gospel--"good news"--is that we can't make ourselves good but that God makes us good through Jesus. When we receive Christ's goodness and believe it, we stop trying to make ourselves more good or less bad through our flesh and simply are good through His spirit in us.

My anxiety over the kids was the result of viewing them through their flesh rather than through their spirit; it was based in my inaccurate perception of them rather than in God's perception of them, which sees Christ. The former bred fear; the latter rests in faith, hope, and love. And when I believe Jesus in them, I parent them in faith, with hope, in love.

Our kids learn who they are from what we believe about them. They believe our perception of them and act accordingly, just as we act according to our perception of what God believes about us. What if we believed that, far from believing our flesh, God looks at us and sees the righteousness (rightness, blamelessness, holiness, perfection) of Jesus? And there's nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to achieve that? I think that’s called Grace. Grace is. Grace does. And we are different.

I have found a respite from the anxiety in this mystery: I am not called to identify my children by their flesh; I am called to help them believe exactly the opposite, to help them see who God has made them to be, by Grace. And this is how I am to view the world--not by their imperfections spawned by a lifetime of insecurity, fear, loss, hurt, and pain but by their spirit made whole and new in Christ. When I view the world this way and believe this redemption of the people around me, perhaps they can begin to believe it of themselves, too. And the more we all believe it, the more we begin to be it.

I've had a better week with the kids. It has been easier to remain calm, to handle mistakes and misbehaviors matter-of-factly, to be patient with childishness and testing without freaking out over its future implications. It matters how I perceive them, what I communicate to them about themselves. They don't behave perfectly; none of us will until our flesh returns to dust and ashes. But they are visibly happier, more confident in me, more confident in themselves. Ben, in particular, has been loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and good and kind and gentle and self-controlled. He has been tender and sweet and respectful. His manners have come readily. His spirit is lighter, probably because mine is.

I'm no longer shouldering the weight of the world. Someone else has done that for me, so I am gladly relinquishing a responsibility which was never mine to begin with. Someone else took on the flesh--the sin--of the whole world, including my children's, and gave me, in exchange, the easy burden and the light yoke of Love, which hopes all things, believes all things, and bears all things in the knowledge that "It is finished." There's nothing left for me to do.

I believe this, albeit with just a mustard seed of faith, but apparently this is enough to move the mountain of anxiety in my mind. Now, I can simply enjoy who God is creating in Ben and Abby as I raise them in this world, trusting that He who began a good work in them will be faithful to complete it.

Grace is. Grace does. And I am different. And they are different. And we are different. Amen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Big Girl Alert...

At the risk of divulging too much information (but hey, this is a mama's blog after all), Abby made peeps on the potty Wednesday night! On purpose. On time. At her initiation.

She's been flirting with the potty lately. Trying it out here. Sitting on it there. It's not unusual for her to ask to use the potty, but it is unusual for her diaper to be dry or clean when we get there. Bathroom usage has been a mostly post-activity activity, if you catch my meaning.

But her request to use the little plastic potty has increased in frequency over the last few weeks. On Sunday night during her bath, she even managed to tell Josh she needed to go potty and held it until she got there. This bathtime potty success was the second of her life. The first took place a few months ago, but I think that one came as a surprise to both of us. Usually she just informs me of her release as I'm washing her hair, at which point I drain the tub, rinse her hair extra well, and start again. Lovely.

Tonight, however, she was in full command of her body. After determining which parent was going night-night with which child, I asked Ben which potty he would be using before bed. He said he'd use the one in his room, at which point Abby chimed, "I neeh tuh yews duh pah-tee, tooh." So Ben and I headed upstairs to get him ready for bed, and Josh and Abby made a pit-stop in the downstairs bathroom.

I wondered if the before-bed timing would be effective. When I heard Josh mention he was going to the kitchen to get a chocolate chip (this was our on-the-fly reward when she used the potty out of the blue Sunday), I realized she had done it. Of course, when they came upstairs, Ben and I made as much of a fuss over her accomplishment as we could. She couldn't have looked more radiant if a celestial being had taken residence in her body: she was beside herself proud, so pleased with her "big girl" activity--she beamed. As Ben and I cheered and danced, she actually laughed out loud with delight.

I chuckle at the hilarity of all this hoopla over bodily functions we generally pretend don't exist. Yet I suppose that's what's brilliant about childhood--the taboos are not only acceptable, they're celebration-worthy.

Perhaps she'll get out of diapers in time for us to use the money for dog food. Perhaps not. But I think one of the greatest joys of parenting is standing witness to even the most mundane milestones: sleeping through the night, eating real food, using the potty, dressing oneself--activities we take for granted as adults. Add to that the wonder of watching them learn to count, recognize letters, sound out words, feel empathy, demonstrate compassion, ask why, begin to understand why, explain why to others... Parents get to watch and share in it all, for a time. And cheer.

This is the privilege. This is why children are a gift. Their most vulnerable moments are entrusted to our encouragement. What a treat to witness her joy and accomplishment and to share in it with her. Josh and I could see the big girl welling up within her, like a butterfly.

This beautiful creature is emerging, and we get to watch her unfold in all her glorious splendor.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Mystery of Meltdowns

Sometimes I'm amazed by how quickly the tide of emotion changes in our house: one minute smiles and giggles and sweetness and light and the next minute tears and frustration and tragedy and the-sky-is-falling.

I try to remember what it is like to be a child. I try to remember back to my own meltdowns. I don't remember them from when I was my kids' ages, but I do remember them from when I was older. That feeling that no one quite understands what I feel and what I think and why, or even cares to. That sense of being alone against the world. Nevermind that it was over a Barbie doll or an invitation to a friend's house or a fight with one of my sisters. Nevermind that whatever scolding or chastisement I received was probably deserved. The rightness and wrongness of a situation never negated the sense of being misunderstood, of not being taken seriously.

Isn't that how we all feel in this world? As adults, we've just better learned to mask it--or prevent it in the first place. Or at least we have the valid platform of adulthood to address it when it happens now. No one can dismiss us as being "just kids."

So when I see my kids well up with emotion, see the tears sting their eyes and threaten to spill, see them take great, shallow breaths in an attempt to control the imminent loss of internal control, I feel such compassion, such empathy. Even if I'm right. Especially if I'm right. Because I know the rightness is irrelevant to them.

And I wonder sometimes why so much emotion sits so close to the surface. Why are tears so ready? Is it me? Is it them? Is it life? Probably all three.

The challenge of childhood is that there are all these very real feelings, all these very sincere desires, all these very legitimate curiosities that are subject to the decisions and moods and schedules of the grown-ups around. Kids are people with all the inconvenient realities of personhood but without the authority to exercise said personhood at will. No wonder kids cry so much.

I mean, we adults cry and whine when the government insists we have to do anything at all we don't like: endure airport security measures, pay taxes, respect speed limits (I'm especially guilty of crying and whining about the last one). Perhaps it stems from those first eighteen years of living life under the direction and enforcement of someone else. It leaves us recoiling at anything remotely resembling an authority trying to thwart our autonomy.

When I see my kids, I try to remember all this, but sometimes I don't.

I try to give as many choices and as much autonomy as I can, but sometimes I don't, or can't, or won't.

I try to explain why things are the way they are when I can, but sometimes I can't.

And in the end, sometimes they cry. Sometimes I do. It's all part of this give-and-take/tug-of-war/see-saw of relationship. You have needs, I have needs. You have wants, I have wants. All in the context of varying degrees of tiredness, hunger, stimulation, stress, and confusion--and in the power structure of adult/child hierarchy.

This, I'm sure, is why all parents say, "Just wait...someday you'll understand." It's not actually all that different on the other side, see. While as a child my needs and wants are necessarily curtailed for the benefit of the family, so as an adult I must willingly choose to curtail my needs and wants for the benefit of the family. The one small but profound difference is choice.

And choice does, in fact, mean everything. It's the foundation of democracy, of capitalism, of reality t.v. In America, we build bombs for choice, engineer nuclear weapons in the name of preserving this privilege. If political rhetoric threatens even the slightest restriction on our choice, beware an inbox flooded with the-sky-is-falling spin and McCarthy-esque warnings. We go to war and die for choice.

Yet many of us willingly sacrifice the full freedom of our choice in marriage and, later, parenthood. As I write this, I can't help but think how much easier it must seem to remain single, or at least childless. Then there's no outside party asserting their way and requesting the surrender of my way. Then I get to choose whatever I want whenever I want a lot more often. But alas, most single people I know would surrender their absoloute autonomy and uninhibited exercise of choice for the assurance of love: that of man and wife, of mother and child.

And I agree. I wouldn't trade my family for any amount of freedom. Somehow, love trumps choice in the end.

My kids didn't get to choose to sacrifice their choice for love, though, so I can't really fault them for their own nuclear meltdowns. And I don't feel bad for wishing I could prevent them. I will continue to help them ride out the storms of emotion with as much composure and compassion as I can muster, because I do hope that in some profound and mysterious way, they are being schooled in love--even as they rant and rave against its confines.

Surrendering the Knowledge of Good & Evil

I'm realizing that I am a person who likes to know, really know, as much as an amateur can about whatever I'm undertaking. I am a person who likes books, workshops, classes, articles, talking with folks experienced in the field, asking questions, probing about the best methods and ideas and theories and books. Ad nauseum, at times.

I took this approach when I taught, when I became a parent, when I began volunteering with the kids at Ben's school. Now as we explore the possibility of adopting a dog, I find myself reading about various breeds, checking out each one's national website and organization, combing through books from the library about both breeds and training techniques, and calling the people I know who are not just dog lovers but dog experts--those raised with breeders, those in vet school, those utterly devoted to the well-being of their pets. If we do this, I want to be prepared before this canine even walks through the door so that we begin well and create a positive environment for everyone.

As I'm reading, I'm recognizing that, as with kids, anticipation is key, establishing precedent and routine is critical, and asserting a loving yet firm authority is paramount. It seems many problems can be prevented by making it clear, even in our very first hours together, who is alpha, how we roll, and what can be expected. This consistency paves the way for fun and affectionate years together.

I've come to the conclusion that most people want to do the right thing but simply don't know how. I can't say I know either, but I think this is why I'm driven to learn as much as I can to ensure I'm as informed as possible as I make these decisions that will impact the lives of my family for years.

I'm not sure whether this "knowing" is always a good thing, though. It's useful, certainly, to have realistic expectations of each developmental stage, to understand what is normal and what is not, to hear about potential problems and how to avoid or address them. But this knowledge is also weighty, carries great responsibility, creates pressure to not screw up. And with my Type-A, perfectionistic personality, this can translate into anxiety and over-concern and blowing innocent things out of proportion, which in the end may be as harmful as ignorance. There's a reason that the knowledge of good and evil is a curse.

For me, I still think having the information is better than walking into something blind, but it also helps to have my husband and some good friends remind me to relax and enjoy and have faith, not in myself and my abilities to do this job, but in God's ability to redeem whatever job I do. Even a great parent or master falls short, and I meet people everyday learning about grace and redemption and change through the foibles, whether malicious or not, of their parents.

No amount of reading can prevent me from making mistakes. No amount of knowledge can allow me to save my children or myself or anyone else from themselves, from life, from their own knowledge and fears and pride and insecurity. Ouch. That is hard to admit. Because the temptation of knowledge is to believe we can make ourselves like God, to believe that we can choose that which is good and right apart from God when in reality, apart from Christ, we can do nothing. Even the ability to choose the good is from Him.

And yet here I am so heartened, because I think of all the good people do in love around the world in every culture and nation, and I recognize that it is God at work, even in the places where people do not realize they know Him. Goodness exists. Love exists.

Well, I haven't yet figured out how to weed this desire for knowledge from myself, and I suppose it is not within my power to do so. So I'll keep reading, but I'll pray for the grace to surrender my knowledge to His love--for my kids, for our future dog, for the world.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Man's Best Friend

I think I've been worked.

Somehow, over the course of a seemingly benign evening with family friends last night, I found myself bombarded on all sides by assertions that it's time for us to get a dog and assurances that it would be the best decision we could make for our family.

Yeah right, I said--and then later found myself plopped in front of looking at all the different breeds suitable for children and a cat.

I should probably back up and say that ever since Kashmir passed, Josh has been scoping the internet for Bengal kittens and sending me links. There is a noticable void in our house now that Kashmir is gone, and while I don't mind sitting with the absence for a while, Josh is eager to fill it and bring our home back to its once comfortable level of fullness.

Fastforward to Thanksgiving weekend when I arrived home from a social engagment to find Josh and my parents watching a Hallmark movie about a family with a special needs child that agrees to bring a dog home from the local shelter over the holidays. In theory, the family will return the dog to the shelter after loving it through Christmas, but of course, they fall in love with the dog and the dog with them, so in the end they, of course, keep it. I caught the last thirty minutes of the movie, and if I were even remotely interested in owning a dog, I might have been tempted to run out and find one.

But I was not even remotely interested. For a number of reasons.

For one, a dog is a serious commitment. Cats don't mind our comings and goings during the day, our weekend jaunts to the mountains, or even our longer excursions to Mexico or California. They miss us, sure, but they are content as long as they have someone to clean their litter boxes every few days and to ensure an adequate supply of food and water. If it's a short enough trip, we can simply leave several bowls of food and water out, and they're fine on their own. Then when we return, they grace us with their presence and affections. And did I mention they reside full-time inside, eliminating any opportunity for fleas or ticks or other pesky afflictions to disturb our household? They even bathe and groom themselves. In every way, they are creatures of self-sufficiecy, and with two small children, I appreciate a creature who can take care of herself.

A dog, however, has to use the great outdoors to relieve himself several times during the day. This requires actually thinking about and planning my day around yet another dependent's needs. Dogs need exercise, grooming, training, space, socialization, and far more accessories than a cat: leashes and crates and beds and chew toys and bones and treats and collars and flea treatments and tick repellant. Dogs make messes. The idea of even having to think about four paws walking into my house on a snowy or muddy day makes me roll my eyes in exasperation. Imagining gobs of fur and drooly messes and insistent neediness and demands for attention leave me wary and doubtful and, frankly, content with our dog-free existence.

And yet, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this idea of a canine companion. Of how grounding a dog is to a family--and to children, especially. Of how sweet it would be for the kids to have an animal in the house that doesn't frighten at Abby's excited squeals, that would welcome their well-meaning if misguided affections, that would grow to love and protect them like family. And I think it could be good, really good, for Benjamin in particular. There's something so right and pure about the notion of a boy and his dog--and I must not be the only one who thinks so as it is a motif that shows up often in literature and film and life.

So in spite of my protests last night, I've spent the last twenty-four hours chewing on this mind candy. What about a dog? Josh and I actually spent most of our spare minutes today researching breeds and looking at animal rescue sites and talking about the implications. I've caught myself daydreaming about this sweet creature laying by my feet in the basement as I type away at the computer. We even let the kids in on the action in a totally casual, Hey, come look at these cute dog pictures kind of way. And by the time he went to bed tonight, Ben said, "I would like to have a dog live in our house."

Which pretty much means I'm toast.

IF we get a dog--and I will continue to use that non-committal word until a true decision is made--we'll get one at least a year or two old to avoid the incessant energy and mischief of puppyhood. We're looking at breeds lauded for their child-friendliness and sweet, affectionate natures. I'm trying to assess how I feel about introducing more mess into my life. This is no small consideration given my neat-freak nature, but some trade-offs are worth the sacrifice. At least I think that's what my perspective is supposed to be.

In the meantime, Josh's birthday is Thursday, and I'm pretty sure the only thing he wants is a dog. I thought for sure I had at least a few more years before the petitioning for a puppy began from the kids. Who knew I'd be assailed by the grown man in the house long before the idea had even seeded in the kids' minds?

But here we are. And perhaps this would be the best timing. We're home a lot right now, tied down by naps. We have lots of energy and love to give. It could be perfect.

I can't believe we're falling for the cliche of man's best friend. May we be so lucky...

Monday, January 4, 2010

PB&J, With Love

On our plane home from Grandma and Grandpa's this afternoon, Abby finally conceded she might need something more than dried cranberries and gummy bears for lunch (gummy goods are our trick for keeping the kids' ears poppin' during take-off and landing). So I pulled out the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Josh's mom made for the kids early this morning.

Somehow I neglected to notice it when I packed the sandwiches into our backpacks, but when I pulled them out, I saw a piece of masking tape on each sandwich baggie bearing the following message: "I [heart] U." I pointed it out to Abby, who grabbed the bag to dive into her sandwich, and proceeded to feel huge swells of affection for my mother-in-law (here she probably shakes her head and rolls her eyes in embarrassment).

It was a simple gesture that by itself is sweet, but following our weekend with her and Josh's dad, was profound for me. Josh's parents love our kids in all their childish foibles and glory, and being at their home this weekend was a gift of respite, of security, of fun, and of love. When we're there, the pace is easy and slow--just about the pace the kids operate. There is little agenda other than meals planned and cooked by Grandma and an attempt to get outside for a walk or for some playtime in the driveway or to scatter deer food for the forest-dwelling visitors that frequent their yard. The kids love the nearly undivided attention they get from all of us, one minute reading Grandma's collection of books from when Daddy was a kid, the next building cars out of "little legos," the smallest legos made that Grandma keeps in a huge, sweater-sized ziploc, probably also saved from Josh's childhood--novel because they are different from the bigger ones we have at home.

And the best part for me: sleeping in. Grandma is an early bird, and so she rises when Ben does, spending the first hour of the day playing with him and, eventually, Abby until Josh and I are ready to face the day. I think we got to stay in bed until 7:30 or 8:00 four mornings in a row. (Sleeping in as a parent has a definition I wouldn't have recognized five years ago). It was glorious.

So after a truly delightful and restful weekend where I found myself reflecting multiple times on my good fortune to have married into such a beautiful and wonderful family, seeing this small gesture of affection nearly brought me to tears--because I know she means it. And somehow, I know that the message is for me, too. It reminded me of the bouquet of flowers they sent me the day after Josh proposed: it was huge and lovely and arrived with a small card saying, "Welcome to the family." The acceptance was absolute, and warm.

With all the insecurity I feel as I struggle to raise Benjamin and Abigail, few things could touch me as deeply as her tender gesture. She, I'm sure, feels it was no big deal. And on the one hand, she's right. It's a piece of tape with three small characters on it. But on the other hand, it's everything.

It reminded me that sometimes all our fearful, insecure, self-doubting hearts need is a small reminder that we are loved, that we are accepted, that someone believes we are okay. She gives this gift to the kids and, in turn, to me. And I realized that this is probably all my kids really need. As they struggle to make sense of this enormous and unknown world, trying each day to learn right from wrong, to learn how to advocate for themselves while respecting others, to learn who they are and who they can become, all they really need is for someone to remind them that they are okay, that they are loved, that they are important. They need for someone to make them a sandwich with love. Even if I can't adequatley explain the mysteries of the universe to my precocious four-year-old, I think I can do that.

So Abby ate her sandwich, and I offered a small prayer of thanks for Dave and Dorothy, Josh's Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa. And I relished Abby's sandwich as much as she did.

Friday, January 1, 2010


January 1st seems like it should be a blank slate. A beginning. A day when you can choose how you want to proceed--or cease proceeding--from this point forward.

But it has never seeemed like a beginning to me. Having been tied to the school system for21+ years as either a student or teacher, January 1st has always marked the approaching conclusion of the two week break from everyday life as usual. Since school generally begins on the weekday following the 1st, New Year's Day rings in a closing rather than a start: the end of vacation, festivities, freedom with the impending return to responsibility.

Now that I'm no longer in school, the transition is less dramatic, but I still find New Year's Day heralds the return to the grind. Family returns home--or we return home from them, Josh heads back to work, the kids' school and classes resume, my obligations beckon once more, and we settle back into the steady rhythm of the year. Very little changes in January except the calendar, and unless you are one of the masses who makes resolutions about how you'll improve your workout consistency or organizational efficiency only to drop it within three to six months as the majority of said masses do, life proceeds in January as it did in December, though perhaps in the context of colder temperatures.

For this reason, it has always seemed an anti-climax, expecially as it follows its more exciting Eve. The Rose Parade is fine, but it's never been a huge thrill for me, and I can take or leave the football games.

It seems there are other times of year that are more conducive to change: summer, perhaps, when the population--even those out of school--seem to collectively graduate a year in maturity, in dreaming, in responsibility. Most organizations, from schools to churches to service institutions to corporate america, create some sort of scaled-back version of themselves in the summer, often to accommodate the busy vacation schedules of their patrons and supporters. With this change, it is easy to step back from unwanted tasks or to step into new ones, to make decisions about how to prioritize time and energy, and to surrender oneself more fully to the present. For similar reasons, the fall invites reflection and decision-making regarding family commitments and schedules.

But not January. In January, we simply continue to live with the consequences of the decisions we made months ago. All we can change are those internal perspectives and attitudes that color the way we enter into life. And for me, at least, choosing to make internal changes due to an arbitrary date on the calendar seems artificial--and therefore destined for failure. I used to make resolutions this time of year--to work out more, eat better, do more, do less, be a better everything...and generally I found myself no different on December 31st of that year than I was 365 days prior.

Until a couple years ago when I decided to resolve nothing. And then I fell in love with spin and found myself craving that hour on a bike and, in turn, exercising more consistently than ever before in my life. And rather than change myself, the passion changed me, turning me into one of those crazy people who climbs Squaw Pass for kicks. And last summer I felt this yearning to write--a passion I'd had before having kids that had gone dormant in the long winter of babyhood--and now I find myself here sorting through the big questions of life on my very own blog, not because I committed to sitting down and writing, as if it were some chore or duty to be completed and checked off, but because I acknowledged the growing desire as something important and true and decided to share it with Josh who supported my endeavors as though I were the next J.K. Rowling. And this adventure fulfills me, completes me in some place that I hadn't even realized was vacant.

I'm finding that change happens most readily, most effectively, most enjoyably when it springs from some undeniable compulsion, a steady and growing resolve, a mustard seed of faith or conviction nurtured by something bigger than me, within me. So I won't be resolving anything this year. Instead, I'll be waiting, watching, listening for that little voice to say, You know what would be amazing...or not.

Because at 31 years old, I'm finally learning who I am and who I was made to be and what I was made to do. I guess I've inverted the process. Rather than creating resolutions that determine who I'm becoming, I'm allowing who I am to drive my resolve--and this reversal has made for some happy and new years, indeed.
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