Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back to school

So here's a thought: This year I will have five kids in five schools, and four school vacation schedules.

More accurately, I will have four kids in four schools and one homeschooler. Little Guy was waitlisted at the school we wanted him to attend, so in addition to working I'll be teaching fourth grade.

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Did I say working? Ah, yes. At the moment it is a combination of freelance and backlogged personal projects. I'm aiming to submit a book proposal this week for a project I absolutely love. And I'm developing a new series of kids' nature programs for the park. And I've got another book idea brewing. And a neighborhood project... 

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Eldest and I leave tomorrow. Everyone's sad that she's leaving, though she's excited to go back to college. Hard to believe she's already a junior! She declared a major in computer science, and is interested in Games for Good types of projects. 

Meanwhile, Snuggler starts middle school on Tuesday, and Dancer begins high school next Wednesday. I managed to persuade Big Guy to buy new shoes today (I AM SO AWESOME!), so he will be able to attend high school next week. He still needs new glasses, but I was able to nerd-tape the old ones together so that they stay on for the time being.

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Our pediatrician inquired about Big Guy today, and I said, "I haven't thought about calling 911 for months!" In my world, that's big news. I expect that as school starts up, stress rises, and life becomes busier we'll experience some bumpiness. But it's been incredibly nice to have a crisis-free interval. It almost feels... weird.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

It's all under control...

When my kids were little and we went about town in a line like Make Way for Ducklings, people expressed amazement that we were able to get out and about. I eventually concluded that with five kids, only three things are necessary for others to consider you a miracle worker. You have to:
  1. brush the kids' hair, 
  2. carry tissues, so no one has a bubbly nose, and 
  3. make sure shirts and sweaters are buttoned straight. 
In the eyes of others -- who don't see the real stresses in your life -- these are signs that you have things under control.

Let's be honest: I will never have things under control. Kids are people, real people with their own minds, souls, ideas, neuroses and weaknesses. I don't and can't and hopefully don't want to control them. At best I can control some of my (and their) circumstances.

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I ran into a mom the other day with a special needs child. I don't know what the child's issues are, but I recognized the suffering in the mother's eyes. This woman knows what it is to fear that her child's life will never be what it should be. She knows the anguish of thinking her child may never fit in. She knows the despair of sensing that all she can offer him and all she can do might never be enough to protect him from rejection and pain.

Those things are hard to deal with. They're far harder to wrestle into submission than endless doctor appointments and therapies. It's not as if this woman can make a phone call and check off the "Handled complicated feelings of shattered dreams" and "Addressed angst caused by not-knowing how to deal with this" items on her list.

I wanted to take this mom for a long, heartfelt chat over a good cup of coffee, to let her pour out her heart. But as we were talking her son woke up. The boy woke with a grin; he had a great smile.

The child didn't have tangled hair or a gooey nose or a mis-buttoned shirt. The miracles that his mother is called upon to bring forth are bigger: miracles of patience and longsuffering and everyday determination to look at her son as her son, to accept him as he is, and to wrap him not in her grief or fear, but in her love.

Sometimes what we're called on to control is our tendency to run in circles howling, "I can't take this!" That's hard. But then, self-control is the hardest. 

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One day not long ago Little Guy said, "I'm scared you're going to die!"

I replied, gently, "You don't need to be afraid of that: of course I will die. Everyone does. It probably -- hopefully -- won't happen soon. But one day I will die. And what will happen then?"

He looked at me solemnly and said, "I will be sad."

I drew him close and told him, "Yes, you will be very sad, probably for a long time. But you will go on, and do what you have to do. Things may be harder than you want them to be, and you may think you can't handle it. But you will go on, and you will discover that you are stronger than you think you are. And you will be okay."

There is life beyond our fears. But you don't get there if you don't walk through the fears, if you allow yourself to panic because it's not all under control.

It's never going to be completely under control. In its own weird way, I find that comforting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Growing into my own adulthood

It's funny how milestones can mess with your brain. Eldest is the same person today as she was last week (when she was -- ahem! -- still a minor), but there's this weird thing going on in my head that sounds kind of like this:

Omigosh.  All these years I've been working toward raising kids into adults, and... well... omigosh. It's done. I mean, it's not -- but it is. How...?

I'm so articulate, unedited.

Somewhere in my drafts folder there's a post I've been working on for a year and a half about how parenting can be frustrating because it lacks a sense of accomplishment and closure. I kept hoping I'd generate some kind of helpful insight out of that, but suddenly I find I an adult child, and my youngest has made his first communion. Huh.

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If you met my competent, capable Eldest today, you would not know that when she was three she was capable of two-hour, purple-in-the-face tantrums. Several times a day. I hope I don't embarrass her by telling you this, because this story is actually about me, not her. Those tantrums were... trying. No matter how resourceful I was, there was no miracle fix for the problem. I had to live with it, live through it, grow by dealing with it -- or go crazy.

One day when my daughter was in meltdown mode on the sidewalk in a very public place, after a very long while (and a lot of silent prayer) I said to her, as mildly as possible, "When you learn to put all that determination to work for good, you are going to be a very strong woman!"

I said it for myself, of course. After all, she was only three. What could she understand about being a strong woman?

Silly me, I thought my problem was my child's behavior, when the real issue was my feelings: I hated my lack of control over the situation, and was mortified by the thought of what others might think of my parenting. Life got a lot better when I realized that a huge part of becoming an adult is learning to distinguish between reacting to a situation and responding to others.

Reacting is about me: my fears, my feelings, my background, my weaknesses.

Responding is oriented to others: their needs, their feelings, their problems and concerns.

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On another day in early momhood I went grocery shopping at the bottom of the hill. It's a big hill, with a step-street of 130 killer steps. When it came time to go home Eldest couldn't -- couldn't -- walk any further. I looked at her in disbelief, but knew this was non-negotiable. And so with 22 pounds of Big Guy (age one) in the backpack, I picked up my 31-pound three year old and the four bags of groceries, and I talked myself up those 130 steps. I exclaimed to my kids, "Do you see how amazing your mother is? Did you know she was this strong? Can you believe your mommy is this wonderful?"

I was talking to myself, of course. That's another part of becoming an adult: learning that self-talk matters. There are times you're the only one who's gonna give that pep talk. And beating yourself up is no better than letting someone else beat you up. It's better to be encouraging.

A week after the stair incident someone said something to Eldest about me. With big eyes and in utter seriousness my daughter affirmed, "My mother is amazing and strong!"

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Last week I told Eldest I didn't truly feel like an adult until the day I held her in my arms. I think that's because adulthood has a lot to do with learning what it means to love.

You're not really an adult until you think ahead to the impact your actions have on others.

You're not really an adult until you're willing to take on burdens because you care about more than yourself.

And I suspect you're not really an adult until you value others more than you value your fears.

I'm still thinking about it. And learning.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The last of the firsts

Someone made his first communion today. It's awfully nice that the whole family is in on this together now.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My first adult

It's what happens to babies, you know: they grow up.

Today Eldest received a voter registration card as one of her birthday gifts. She's certainly one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harbor memories

Periodically the city invites people who volunteer a lot to attend special events. A friend who has done heroic work in the parks was invited on a Circle Line cruise, and invited me as her guest last night. It was a low-key and extremely wonderful event. And one of my favorite ladies in the world was there:

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As the boat passed Ellis Island, I related to my friend the story of Snuggler's four-year old passion for immigration. Some kids are fascinated with dinosaurs, and others with princesses: my girl just loved immigration. We borrowed dozens of picture books from the library -- When Jessie Came Across the Sea, The Memory Coat, Grandfather's Journey, The Keeping Quilt, Long Way to a New Land -- and rode the Staten Island Ferry past Ellis Island many times. We visited the Tenement Museum, and read All of a Kind Family aloud. (We finally made the trek to Ellis Island when Snuggler was six.)

Then for her seventh birthday, Snuggler announced she wanted an immigration-themed party. Right. No prob. (What?!?) I figured it out. When the guests arrived they each were given a cardboard cut-out of a suitcase, which they got to "pack" by cutting out pictures of clothes and household goods from magazines. Then they all crammed onto the boat (the sofa), and I narrated us across the choppy sea. When we arrived at Ellis Island, they each had to go through the process of getting approved: mental and physical checks, questions, etc.

Then the doorbell rang, and lo and behold there was an Irish immigrant selling potatoes! She came in and talked to the girls in a thick brogue for half an hour about her family (who'd just gotten off the boat last week), and how her four brothers were looking for work, and how her mother was a wee bit sick. She told how scared she was at Ellis Island, and how crowded her tenement was. The guests were enchanted. And after "Mara" left, we had cake and opened gifts. The party favor was, of course, a copy of If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island.

Several months later Snuggler told me, "At first I couldn't figure out how Mara came to our house. Then I realized that probably she was just going around to all the little-girl immigrant-theme birthday parties!" Yes, of course -- that's it!

It's the only time I ever hired entertainment for a birthday party. But it was worth it.

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When you take the boat out to the Statue of Liberty or to Ellis Island, you stand in a long line. Eventually, when you reach the front, you go through a metal detector. The day we went, I beeped. I'd forgotten about the pocket knife in my backpack, which in those days I kept for cutting up apples, slicing cheese for crackers, etc.

I asked the National Parks Service person if there was somewhere I could store the pocketknife until we returned. She said, "You could go hide it in Battery Park!"

Right. Because it's safer to keep knives in public parks than to bring them on the boat.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Making progress

Little Guy started soccer camp today. Last night we sat down and had a pre-camp talk. You may recall that my 8yo is somewhat of a perfectionist, a kid who's easily frustrated. And although he likes soccer, he's not a particularly athletic kid.

I reminded him that he's probably not going to be anywhere near the best kid at camp. He knew that. Then I asked, "What's your goal for the week?"

He thought a moment and replied, "To do my best."

I commented, "Doing your best could be frustrating if you're working hard and still not all that good."

He nodded, acknowledging that truth, then looked at me expectantly. I suggested, "How about setting a goal of getting better at soccer?" He smiled. That was do-able.

Then we talked about what might get in the way of his goal: frustration when he doesn't catch on quickly, annoyingly show-offy kids, feeling hungry. "What are you going to do if you start feeling upset?" I asked.

He searched his memory banks, and came up with "Do deep belly breaths".

"How many?" I probed. He thought maybe a hundred; I thought 5-10 would be fine. Then I asked what he'd do if that wasn't working. What's plan B? C? Was there going to be an adult there who could help? What kind of help could he ask for?

Some kids can head into new situations and go with the flow and cope. Some kids can't. I find with my anxious ones that it helps a lot to work through coping strategies beforehand.

And Little Guy's getting better at handling his feelings. Which is all I can really expect or hope for.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A small step forward with reading

The Life and Times of Corn
I really like Charles Micucci's books

I've written before about my concerns with Little Guy's reading. It's not that he can't read, but that (except for Asterix and TinTin) he doesn't. Which is kind of weird, given that we have more than a dozen floor-to-ceiling bookcases here, all shelved two-deep, and everyone reads a lot. If there was ever a family that encouraged reading, we're it.

Then a couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto something. I'd gone to the library to get some books on fireflies, since I was developing an outdoor class for kids as part of a nature program I do for the Parks Department. Among other things, I brought home a picture book about a firefly scientist. Almost before I knew it, Little Guy was curled in a corner reading the book, periodically calling out interesting factoids ("Hey, did you know that in South America there are fireflies that flash all at the same time?")

Hmmm. So I thought, What if I bring home a half-dozen picture books each week? Picture books have plenty of white space, and high-level vocabulary (since it's assumed an adult is reading aloud). There are pictures to help tie the story together. They're not necessarily little-kid stuff.

The next week I brought home the kids' book based on Salt: A World History, a book on Daddy Longlegs, and a handful of other stuff.

Shhh! It's working! He's reading!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


A while back someone commented, "It seems as if you write quickly". I nodded yes, then thought, I'm not sure that's true. I don't usually struggle with stringing words together, but some kinds of writing take a ridiculous amount of time. I put the task of figuring out what kinds of writing take time on my back burner.

Then the other day I was talking with a client who's writing a chapter for a text on music therapy. I was helping her figure out how to structure the piece, which addresses a rather controversial issue.  I know nothing about music therapy, of course. So I asked a pile of questions, and it eventually became clear that she had to make an argument that no one has articulated before. "You're used to writing qualitative studies," I told my client, "This is a different kind of writing: it's creative. You have to decipher and define the shape of a new idea, and that can take a long time!"

Uncovering insights and articulating them -- that's not wordsmithing, that's work. Good, hard work.

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One of the first writing tasks for kids when they're little is to summarize something. Putting words on a page is a lot easier when you don't have to think up anything new. Re-tell a story. Explain how something is done. Observe, then describe. All that is simply taking something already in the world and transforming it into words.

And yet life is about a lot more than re-phrasing what's already known. It's about discovery, and un-covery, and synthesis. That's harder. Which is why, for writing, we leave those assignments for later years, when the basics have been mastered.

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It's always astonished me that my most creative act -- having children -- was mainly a matter of cooperation, not effort. Nine months of cooperating with God (or nature, if you see it that way), and then half a day of intense labor.

This tells me that to produce something new requires ample time for ideas to germinate. Most of the real work happens in the dark. Most of the real work happens because of the environment you've prepared; is it conducive to nurturing to new life or ideas or perspectives?

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My mom loves to tell of the day I called home from college and said, in wonder, "You know, I really am creative!" She'd told me all my life that I was, but I didn't believe her until I was out on my own.

I still don't think of creative as a word that applies well to me. But the process of sifting through thoughts and ideas, distilling them, connecting them with disparate thoughts, shaping them into something new, and transforming them into words that others can grasp -- that's good stuff. That's the kind of writing that doesn't come quickly. Though it took a while for me to figure it out.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Time and time again

Suddenly it feels like summer is over. There's still a month left before school starts, of course, but the final stretch is previewing in my head in fast motion. There are school supplies and shoes to buy, dental appointments, and emotions of anxious kids to calm. Oh -- and the minor matter (!) of where Little Guy will get educated.

I've always thought it odd that time can feel condensed or rushed or slow and yet tick along systematically. When I was young, I thought this made clock-time peevishly deceptive. Somewhere in my mid-20s I got annoyed enough at clock-time that I decided not to structure my life around it. (It's possible this choice was influenced by a story I read when I was about 12, in which a boy in WWII trained himself to wake up at whatever time he needed to be up. I thought that was very cool.)

So back in the days when people wore watches, I didn't. I didn't want to strap my life to a timepiece. I did keep a clock on my desk so I wasn't late for meetings, but I rarely looked at it. Instead I became very, very good at sensing how much time had elapsed. I found that not-thinking about the tick-tock gave me greater concentration and creativity.

Somewhere I learned that the Greeks had two distinct words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the chronological, measurable stuff. Kairos is the outside-of-time time we enter when we call up a memory that is as rich and real as the event itself. If you fall into a reverie and re-experience what it was like to hold your baby for the first time, or are practically there in the warm kitchen eating cookies with your grandmother, you're probably closer to kairos than chronos. You're remembering in the sense of re-membering, re-uniting. And it's real. It's more than just a story stored in your data banks: it's as if you've re-entered a time outside of time.

In theology, kairos means the time in which God acts. It's the intersection of the temporal and eternal. I like that. I like it a lot.

But I still have to make another trip to Staples for school supplies.