Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Little Guy quote of the day

"It's really hard being a Picasso creation"

A catalog of home education

For some mysterious reason today's mail contained a 592-page catalog from Northern Tool + Equipment. Little Guy -- who spent the train ride coming home from co-op describing three new inventions he thought up during class -- is in heaven.

"Mom! What's the budget for my birthday? There's an electric winch here with a remote that's only $54.99!"

I know better than to point out that in an 1100-square foot apartment that (often) houses seven people, the need for an electric winch is somewhat limited. I save my breath for answering his questions.

"Mom, how do you see the pictures these security cameras take?"

"Ummm, you don't. They're simulated cameras. That means fake. They're designed to fool thieves into thinking you have a security system when you don't."

He decided we didn't need that; the surveillance cameras with panoramic views were more his style. Especially the ones you can hook up to your TV.

Catalogs are a great home education tool. Little Guy will be busy for hours today, peppering me with questions ("What's a CB radio?" and "You wouldn't let me buy a chain saw, would you?") and making lists of things he'd like to buy. I can have him pretend he is starting a business, and figure out what he'd need. I can give him a pretend budget and have him add up numbers. We can talk about what various technologies are used for, and why someone might need a particular item. And the best part about all this is that Little Guy doesn't think it's school work.

Though I will have to figure out what a hydraulic planetary auger guide is. Gulp.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship
Among the books on my night table is Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. It's a generous book, exquisite in many parts. 

A good book is a good thing. I've been having a rough time emotionally the past week, with sudden, uncharacteristic periods of teariness and anger. I haven't understood why: my brain won't shut up long enough to find out. I realize I could use a few days of solitude, a block of quiet in which to think and write and pray and be. But that's only happened once in 16.5 years of being a parent, so I know I must seek out the peaceful pockets of my heart, and find rest there.

Last night after Eldest was successfully sent back to college and Big Guy was returned to his residence and Snuggler's frantic tummy was calmed, after I'd grappled with how to deal with the continued evasion of Big Guy's residence about his missing medication, after I'd talked to Andrew about taxes and college financial aid, after deciding I was too tired to pick up the living room, I went to bed to read for a while.

I was near the end of Long Way Home, where Caldwell writes piercingly about life after her best friend dies. Then she quotes a poem by Pablo Neruda:
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Suddenly I was sobbing. I understood: what is present in my life is absence. The absence of Big Guy, of Eldest, of other things I haven't written about here. All summer and fall and winter I have been working like mad, bucking others up, keeping the ship movingforward and picking up the pieces by sheer force of will. I have taken the long way home to grief.

At least I am home. At least I know.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why, you may ask, is there a black spot on my 9yo's leg this morning?

Because last night when she was getting ready for her jazz choir concert she came out with black tights with a hole in them. I sent her back to change, but she had no other clean black tights. I told her she needed to figure out a solution, then forgot about it.

She did find a solution. Black face paint.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Jazzed-up kids

Most of the family was on hand this evening to be in the audience for the jazz choir concert. Snuggler and Little Guy were in the choir, singing classics like "Route 66", Ella's arrangement of "When You Wish Upon a Star", and "Button Up Your Overcoat".

When Eldest was in the very first jazz choir there was just a handful of kids. Now it's a Big Thing, with  37 children, ages 6-11. They did a nice job. Little Guy looked terrified most of the time; Snuggler oozed character into her solo, and was quite entertaining. I was reminded of the days when Big Guy and Eldest were on stage and audience participation for my little ones consisted of whacking the congratulatory bouquets on the seat backs in time to the music. (Shredded tulips, anyone?)

Eldest heads back to college tomorrow, so our all-family-at-home moment is just a moment. There is something comfortable and right about having the seven of us here this evening. It doesn't happen often. Next weekend Dancer is performing in two ballet pieces, but Eldest will not be able to attend. Somehow I've repressed the agenda for next Saturday, which includes back-to-back soccer games, a two-hour Anne of Green Gables rehearsal, and then Dancer's performance. I will hyperventilate when the time comes...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring Break: an interview with Eldest

What's the best thing about college?
It's not boring, and everybody there is really nerdy (in a good way), so it's easy to make friends. It's nice being around smart people, so no one thinks I'm a freaky super-genius.

What's harder than you thought it would be? Easier?
Feeding myself and finding time to sleep. Living away from home and making new friends has been easier than I expected.

What's good about being home to visit?
I get to see my family again, and dinner shows up -- poof! -- on the table. I don't have to do my laundry, either.

How is the second semester different from the first?
It's harder academically. I'm taking more difficult courses this term. But I know lots of people, so I don't have to spend as much energy making friends. I also kind of know what to expect now, and that makes it easier.

How are you different from who you were at this time last year?
I'm still the same person (my DNA hasn't been altered by going to college), but I have more confidence now. I used to think I could never go to college because that would be hard, and I didn't think I could do hard stuff. But it's worked out pretty well so far, and I feel pretty good about myself. I can go back to college and have all my egotism crushed out again, and still survive. Somehow.

How has your spiritual life changed?
This is the first time I've had people close to my age who share my faith. I go to a Bible study with a group of four other girls, and I like that. And our pastor talks about things that are relevant to college students, so it's easier to pay attention to him.

What's the most fun thing you do at school?
Sing! I'm in the concert choir, so I get to sing classical music in a big group, and it's fun to hear the music come together. And I'm also in a nerdy-songs a capella group, where I have a lot of friends and laugh a lot.

What do you miss most, now that you're a college student?
Food. My siblings. My parents. Sleep.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why do we let girls dress like that?

A friend forwarded an article from the Wall Street Journal titled Why Do We Let Girls Dress Like That?

Good question.

Around here, we don't. We have many conversations, starting when they're young, as we walk down the street.

Me:   Huh. What do you think that girl wants you to notice first about her?
Kid:   Her butt [or legs or chest].
Me:   Why would she want that? (conversation ensues, ending with...) So what do you want people to notice about you first?

I can't guarantee that it works, but it does open the door to talking about the fact that what you wear sends a message.

Monday, March 21, 2011

When other kids come to play

One of Little Guy's friends came over today to play. He's a nice kid, creative, fun. The boys get along well. About three hours into the playdate the boy said to Little Guy, "I'm hungry!"

A few moments later, he said it again. And then again. I didn't respond, because I'm the  old-fashioned type who draws a distinction between announcements and requests. If you're six or seven and give me a news report like "I'm hungry" I'll acknowledge that you said something, but I assume that if you wanted me to do something you'd ask me.

Eventually the boy asked if he could please have something to eat. "Of course," I said, "We have fruit, or I can make popcorn."

"I hate popcorn!" the boy said. I blinked in surprise.

"I think you meant to say, 'no thanks' to the popcorn," I suggested, in a slightly puzzled tone. The boy looked at me funny. "I have apples, pears, bananas, and oranges," I added.

"I only like grapes," the boy said. I raised my eyebrows.

"I'm sorry, but I don't have grapes. They're not in my budget at this time of year. But I have other fruit"

"My dad buys grapes," the boy countered.

I honestly don't think he meant to be rude. I reminded myself that he probably hadn't been in this situation often, and was still learning that different families have different ways of doing things. I took a deep breath to fight off irritation. I told myself, This is part of my job as a mom. To help set boundaries for kids, even if they're not my own.

I mean, if it was my kid who was being annoying, I'd want you to teach him -- kindly and gently -- a better way to handle himself. I'd want you to correct him, guide him, explain things to him. What I wouldn't want would be for you to blame my parenting skills and take out your irritation by withholding a future invitation to play.  

The conversation with the boy took another ten minutes before he settled on something he was willing to eat. I gave it to him and he said, glumly, "I guess I'll have to try something new..."

I smiled and replied, "I think you meant to say, 'Thank you'."

And d'you know... the boy took his plate to the kitchen without being asked. And Little Guy forgot to do that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Going to see your kids perform

I went to pick up Snuggler and Little Guy from jazz choir yesterday, and got talking with two parents I don't know. One was saying that his son had asked him to be part of the back-up parent choir for Tuxedo Junction, but he was going to be out of town the weekend of the concert. The other parent said her son had been pestering her to participate. Mine hadn't asked, and I didn't volunteer. The dad then turned to me and asked, "How do you manage going to everything with your kids?"

I laughed and replied, "Oh, mine know that there will always be someone who's important to them in the audience. It might be their godmother or a friend's mom, but it won't always be me."

My kids are in a lot of activities. This is because we homeschool and have time and energy for afterschool classes, and I want my children to have exposure to people outside of the family. But when the soccer field lies north and the ballet studio is to the south, logistics are a challenge. And when Nutcracker tickets cost $65 each, we're not having six people attend six times. There are ways to be supportive without taking up residence in the audience.

Besides, there's an age at which a child has to decide to play sports or be in plays or dance or sing because he or she has a passion for it, instead of so Mom can see. Around here that shift has generally happened at around age nine.

But yesterday I remembered that I do need to go see Dancer do her tap class. I haven't seen her at all, and watching for ten minutes is better than the alternative: having her demonstrate her new abilities at home, where our floor is the ceiling of our downstairs neighbor.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What we see

A classic experiment. Watch the video completely.

There are good things in our lives that we miss, simply because we're paying attention to the negatives.

A new blog

For those of you who are faith oriented, I've been asked to blog over at Guideposts on the devotional life. The blog is called Seeds of Devotion, and will be updated weekly. There are two pieces up now, more to come.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Bing's laugh was loud and infectious, a joyful presence in my freshman year. She was the oldest of four, the daughter of immigrants. Her family owned two upscale restaurants in the D.C. area; her uncle owned the Yenching in Harvard Square. On her birthday, Bing took a group of us out for a Chinese banquet, where dish after dish after dish emerged, like nothing I'd ever eaten before. I think of Bing when I'm cooking from Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. She was my introduction to Chinese cuisine.

Last night after I dropped off Big Guy, I did something I would not have known how to do without college friend: I went into a Chinese grocery store. I'd been in this one once before, but that night my kids swarmed around choosing "mystery candy" (treats unlabeled in English), and I hadn't been able to give the place proper attention.

This time I was solo, and I strolled the crowded aisles with pleasure. I picked up fabulous green beans for under a dollar a pound, bright green Chinese broccoli, crunchy baby bok choy. There were bags of frozen sweet-bean buns, salted fried broad beans, and knockoff digestive biscuits for the kids. Rice wine for cooking, fresh noodles for tomorrow's dinner. Four bags of food for roughly $30.

I hopped back on the train and opened up Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, which had Big Guy in Bing-worthy laughter on the way out. I nibbled a few haw flakes, and enjoyed my book, and thought fondly of my long-ago friend, whose life still enriches mine today.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Making waves

This morning I looked at the online news coverage of what's happening in Japan. I was struck by one photo of a father holding his son's hand; their backs were to the camera, as the two looked out on the utter wreckage of what had been their neighborhood. And a cry rose up within me: WHY? I shook my fist at God, and was very sad and thoughtful for a while.
Then I thought at least I could say a prayer for that boy, and another one for his father. So I did.

And then I thought I could go back through the photos on the news web site, and say a prayer for each of the people I saw. So I did.

My brain gets stupid when I'm upset, so when I'm unfocused I revert to the prayer that Jesus taught, the one folks call the Lord's Prayer. My brain can stay on track with that. If it doesn't, it's easy to pick up where I left off, or start again. I can say it many times, and it doesn't lose meaning. 

A while later I thought about how many people have died (I think the estimate now is 1500), and I thought that each one of those people has a mother or father or a child somewhere, who also needs prayers.

But praying for all those people one person at a time would take a very long time. Probably as long as it takes to clean up from the tsunami.

And I thought, I don't have that much stamina. My heart isn't that big. Sadly, that's true.

And then I thought, But even a tsunami is made up of drops of water. And I'm not the only one who can contribute to a wave of prayer. 

So I'm putting it out there for you. The people of Japan are going to be suffering for days and months and years. Get out your wallet and contribute to whatever relief organization you prefer. Then choose a number of people to pray for, any number. Choose a length of time, however long you think you can sustain it. Get started. Keep going. Steal this post, and pass it on.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A meeting of the minds

I had a meeting at Big Guy's residence today, with the people who have not been following through in getting my son the care he needs for his depression.

So I got up before dawn yesterday and spent some time praying for these people. I didn't do this because I'm some sort of saint, but because I was angry.

You might say I have a right to be angry. Well, yes -- sort of. The problem is that I'm not that good at preventing righteous anger from getting tainted with self-righteousness. I've learned the hard way that when I think I have the right to let'er rip, I've invariable made some faulty assumption, or there were extenuating circumstances I didn't know about, or I belatedly discover that I was partly to blame for the situation. Besides, let'er rip isn't usually the best way to build relationships. And I need a good working relationship with these people.

So I prayed for them. It wasn't a "Make them see that I'm right, God!" prayer. I don't much believe in those. I asked that they be given wisdom and compassion and understanding of Big Guy. And then I asked for a few drops of wisdom and understanding of the situation, myself, because I had no idea how to approach this meeting. I only knew that I needed a strategy that was collaborative instead of confrontational.

 Last night I went around the corner to go to the ATM, and ran into my good friend Liz. I told her about my concerns for this meeting. She suggested that I frame things within the context of trying to understand what the residence's standards are for response time and care. "They're the experts on their organization, and they know how they work. If you focus on standards you'll get a clear picture of what to expect. And then if you lay out your concerns and it's obvious that they didn't meet their own standards, you don't have to say it. The problem will be clear to everyone. Without conflict."

Brilliant. Workable. And an answer to prayer.

This morning we had a good, constructive meeting. There were, indeed, some aspects of how the organization is structured that I did not understand. People were open and helpful and honest. I'm confident that everyone now has a better grasp of the scope of Big Guy's issues. They came up with some excellent ideas for new ways to support my son.

Tonight my heart is more peaceful, and I am filled with new respect for the people with whom I'm working. I know that the supports we've put in place won't cure Big Guy's depression, but at the same time I know there are no longer gaping holes in his safety net. That's a good thing. I'm thankful.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carrying crosses

Sculpture: Nicholas Mynheer
I'm going to go theological on you this morning.

There is a wonderful one-line story in the Bible about a man named Simon of Cyrene. It lies in the midst of the story of the crucifixion, after we go through the visceral  nastiness of Jesus being whipped and mocked and spit on. The soldiers lead Jesus out to be crucified. And then comes the story-in-a-nutshell:

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (Mark 15:21)
I love Simon. I love the humanizing fact that he's someone's dad, and that his 15 minutes of fame come smack in the middle of someone else's story -- and we never hear of him again.

I love Simon because he shows that Jesus didn't feel the need to say, "Oh, no, that's okay -- I can do it all myself". 

I love Simon because some significant part of life consists of thinking we're just "passing by", when it turns out that we're needed in that spot at that point in time to help. We might object to the job, and we might think we're not the right person, but so what? We're available. We're called.

Today I woke up early, and after a longish quiet time I began to think about carrying crosses. You know: those big, heavy chunks of the wood of life, the kind that drive splinters into your head and make you stagger and fall. The kind that may offer only more pain and suffering at the end of the trip.

It's hard to carry your own cross. It's a different kind of hard to be among those helplessly lining the road, watching as someone else carries his. We want to cry out to the Roman guards, "Me -- pick me! I'll carry it!" We want to be a Simon of Cyrene to those we love. But really, we want more than that. We want to take up the crosses of others so we can make their suffering go away.

But that wasn't the role of Simon of Cyrene. For a brief period, his cross was to carry the cross of someone else. And after that, his cross was to carry the burden of being unable to do more.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Where the Wild Things were

There was once a little boy who loved listening to Jim Weiss stories on CD. He loved history. He played with his Playmobil figurines for hours. He had a best friend who understood him perfectly. The little boy was sweet and funny and adored his big sister. He sang 'Silent Night' to the baby to quiet her when she cried. He worried when someone else on the playground was hurt, and was generous of heart.

There was once a little boy who loved 'talking time' with his sisters just before bed. Who could always find something interesting to do. Who had questions about the world, and who loved God, and who hated to be separated from his mom for any reason.Who loved read-alouds, and whose favorite book was Where the Wild Things Are.

At age five this little boy began a downward spiral into severe anxiety and depression. And when he was hospitalized at age seven, after trying to throw himself through a plate-glass store window, we brought his Wild Thing to the ward where we were permitted to see him only one hour a day. The older kids made fun of him because he still slept with a toy. A nurse took it away as punishment for some minor infraction. (When we found out we were angry and made her give it back.) He loved Wild Thing, anyway.

Last night as Andrew and I talked about Big Guy's difficult visit this weekend, Andrew looked over and saw Wild Thing in our room. I don't know why it was there. "I look at that and I can barely remember the little boy who held it," he said.There was a silence.

 I picked up Wild Thing and looked at him. Inside me there roared a terrible roar. My heart sailed back over years and in and out of weeks and through the days, trying to remember the good things I need to hold close. Those memories are what allow supper to still be waiting for my boy, should he return.

And I held Wild Thing to my chest. I wept with him in my arms, because Big Guy was not here to hold.

Please pray for us.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Zoing! In which life changes quickly...

Yesterday Big Guy became upset about something minor at school, and impulsively thought up a just-dangerous-enough-to-get-attention ploy. But a depressed kid who wants to send the message that he's hurting is not a poster child for good judgment. And what seems just-dangerous-enough can quickly end up being more than dangerous, or even fatal. Even if that wasn't the original intention.

Which is a bland way of saying that things didn't happen quite the way Big Guy expected, and a lot of people got very scared very fast. Big Guy's okay now. Andrew spent the evening with him in an ER last night, awaiting a psych evaluation.

We've gone through the ER so many times that I've developed a "Hey, at least I know he's safe if he's there" mentality. There are only two possible outcomes: either they keep him, or they don't. This time they didn't admit him.

Obviously, being released does not mean that Big Guy is healthy or well or even that he will be stable for more than the time being. Being released means that at the time he was evaluated he was no longer a danger to himself or others.

Big Guy's depressions are characterized by a daily mix of ups and downs, not all-the-time despair. You can ask him at 2pm how he's feeling, and he'll say he's fine. But at 4pm he might be struck by a wave of despair which nearly drowns him. It's taken us a long time to figure out that the severity of his depressions is discernible mainly by the number and frequency of his impulsive actions. The more fragile he is, the more often he falls apart. The more extreme his impulsive actions are, the worse he's faring.

He's coming for a visit tomorrow, and is eager to be at home with the family. I will be glad to give him a long, giant hug.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Rough day. There's worrisome stuff going on with Big Guy, and (as usual) that seems to attract well-intentioned people who operate in an alternate reality.

There was, for example, the social worker I talked to about how Big Guy's school has documented a sharp increase in self-destructive statements. His comment: "Oh. But I saw him yesterday and he seemed happy!"

Or the nurse who, in response to my concern that Big Guy has been sleeping in school for weeks said, "It's probably just that the teacher didn't bother to wake him up."

Ahem. We're dealing with a child who has chronic dysthymia, a history of periodic Major Depression, and a severe anxiety disorder. I know my child, and I know the symptoms he's had in the past when he's been depressed. I am a sane person, an intelligent woman, and I am well-informed on mental health issues. I am not going to let anyone dismiss Big Guy's shift in behavior with "he's probably just doesn't want to be in school". I don't care if I get labeled a pushy mama. I don't care what excuse people want to serve up. I don't care if they don't like me, because this is my child and he needs help. And I'm going to get it.

I will try to be gracious and respectful. I will warn people when I'm getting annoyed. I will correct them when it's clear they are making false assumptions or don't have their facts straight. I will pray for those who aggravate me. (I will get my child the help he needs.)

I will vent privately to my shell-shocked husband (who always looks at me when I'm like this as if he's not sure I'm the lady he married). I will pray some more, this time for guidance. I will take many deep, cleansing breaths. I will think and think and think. (I will get my child the help he needs.)

And when I wonder how the world can possibly be filled with so many [adjective,adjective, adjective] people who completely don't get what I'm talking about, I will force myself to wonder why so many of my days are nonetheless filled with helpful, kind, thoughtful friends. Because part of the reason I can focus on getting my child the help he needs is that there are so incredibly many good people in this world who encourage me and give me strength. 

Couldn't do it without you.