Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Green Blocks approach to life

Coming home Sunday night from the final performance of Honk! (featuring Little Guy in his first lead, and Snuggler in a main character role) I had a mental image of the departure board at Penn Station, with the top listing flicking its way off and all the other train listings moving up a notch. It's not a bad analogy for my life at the moment. Dancer finished her first weekend of Nutcracker performances, and now has only four more to go (I work backstage for most of that). Eldest arrives home on Wednesday. Our annual cookie project is concluding, in which folks from the neighborhood bake cookies which then get delivered to the local food pantry. My mom arrived Sunday morning so she could see the musical; she leaves today, weather permitting.

Ten days (or departing trains?) ago, during my intense busy period of editing six masters' thesis proposals (which coincided with a quarterly project and a monthly project), Eldest hit a crunch: she had three huge school projects due and a trip to California for a job interview. It was an overwhelming to-do list even by my standards.

The situation looked impossible from every angle. Which, however, did not mean it was impossible. We tend to think things are impossible long before they are. And once we start to fear something is impossible, anxiety can easily take over space in our brains that could and should be allocated to actually solving the problem.

Sometimes fear is a bigger obstacle than the actual problem, because fear can paralyze. As soon as you are paralyzed, you can almost guarantee you won't get through whatever it is you have to do. Which is why I live by Winston Churchill's saying, "If you're going through hell... keep going."

I have a method for dealing with impossible situations: I call the Green Blocks approach to life. When my kids were little and made a mess, saying, "Clean up this room!" was less than useless, because the directive was too overwhelming. So instead I'd say, "I need you to pick up all the green blocks." That narrowed the project down to one thing to focus on, and made it do-able.

After the green blocks were put away, we switched focus to the yellow blocks. Then the red blocks. The idea was to do one thing at a time. Whatever was next wasn't even on the to-do list until the first task was done.

In a way this is the antithesis of multi-tasking. Do one thing, and do it with 100% focus and effort. You will have more brainpower to put into it, and you will make progress. Then the problem becomes smaller.

*         *         *          *

Worries will creep in anyway, of course. I manage that by setting a specific time when I will allow myself to worry about the next thing. Maybe it's two hours away, or maybe at 8 p.m.  As I told Eldest, it's okay to set aside a worry for a while -- it's not as if it's going to go away if you put it down. When your allotted time for the task at hand is up, you can pick up the worry again... if you want to.

*          *           *          *

When you were a kid, hyperventilating at a page packed with 50 math problems, hopefully your teacher showed you how to put a sheet of blank paper over all but the first line, so the task wasn't so overwhelming.

As adults, we sometimes forget that we can still take this approach to big problems. The more successful we are at developing techniques that keep us from becoming overwhelmed, the more likely we are to succeed in getting through the big things. 

You can only do what you can do. Then again, you can do far less when you're feeling overwhelmed. You can do far less when you're worried. You can do far less when you're floundering or running in circles. 

Even if all you can do is put away the green blocks at the moment, do it. If you can't pick them all up, pick up five. Then pick up five more. Or map the number that you pick up to the digits in your phone number (e.g., first pick up 2, then 1, then 2...)  It's not nearly as hard as trying to pick it all up at once.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Choral beauty

Eldest came home late Wednesday night and left for college again this evening. She's flying out to California on Thursday for a job interview on Friday, then back to school on Saturday in time to perform in her choir concert. In between now and then, she has to work on three projects due by the end of the following week. It's... a lot.

This morning, in order to capture a bit of one-on-one time, she and I walked up to the Cloisters. There's an 'exhibit' there through December 8th which, if you are anywhere in the NY area and can carve out a visit, is worth hearing. It's a sound installation in the Fuentaduena chapel of Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet, Spem in alium. There are 40 speakers, one for each voice.  It's quite breathtaking.

In addition to the experience of being in the midst, the middle, the center of glorious music, there was the magic of watching people listen. It's a holiday weekend, and although Eldest and I timed our visit to arrive shortly after the museum opened, the chapel was packed. I would guess there were 150+ people in the small room. A third of them stood motionless, eyes shut. Many others looked off in the near distance, lost in thought or emotion. No one spoke. No one texted. A few people took photos of the crucifix hanging from the apse.

When you are at a concert, you are the recipient of music. This is a different thing, a being-in-the-midst. When you are at a concert, you next to or in front of or behind others, and do not see how they are responding. To be lost in beautiful music along with others who are lost in it as well -- perhaps in the same way as you are, perhaps not -- is an interesting experience.

I did not see a single person leave during the entire 11-minute duration of the piece.

If you go during the week, it will not be as crowded. And the museum is now open on Mondays. The suggested admissions price is just that: suggested. They will not ask how much you want to pay at the desk, but if you say, "Two, please," and hand them two dollars, they will give you the tickets. (This is true at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well, and at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Go. It is a beautiful thing to be among others who are appreciating a beautiful thing.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Social responsibility

I was at a social event a while back, outside of my neighborhood, with people I sort-of know but don't know well. It was a small gathering.

At one point I was talking about Eldest and her job search (she's a senior now), and how she wants to put her computer science degree to use in a position where it would make a difference in the world. She's not interested in working in finance, and not interested in start-up shopping services, and not interested in designing violent computer games. She's looking at companies at the intersection of computers and education, and at firms that build computer games that improve health outcomes, and at places that make applications to accelerate relief services after natural disasters.

One of the women turned to me and asked, "How do you teach a kid that kind of social responsibility? Kids feel so entitled these days!" Then the doorbell rang, so I didn't get to answer.

*        *         *         *

Had I had the chance to reply, my reply would have been, "You can't teach social responsibility... you have to live it." I would have also said that there's no guarantee. I don't know what proportion of what parents teach their kids gets tossed out; I've always guessed it's about 30%. It's probably a different 30% for each kid, too. Kids make their own choices, and some of them will end up having values very different from ours.

All we get to choose is the input. This one of the things I think many parents struggle with mightily: even if we do it all "right", at best we influence rather than control the outcome.

We're also notoriously blind to our sins of omission. What we teach our kids consists not only of what we say is right and wrong, but by what we show them. We can assume our children know we believe we should take action to alleviate human suffering, but they don't see what happens in our heads. They don't even see the check we put in the mail for typhoon relief. If we remember to tell them about the check, we forget that they don't necessarily know a) the thought process that went into our decision, b) whether the amount we sent constitutes a real sacrifice or simply an allocation of funds, or c) what our role is in alleviating suffering in the world.

We may forget to talk about how suffering is a constant for many people, not a weather-driven exception. We may forget to muse aloud about how hard it is to remember that others suffer, and how hard it is to remember -- in the midst of thinking about what we'd like to eat for dinner -- that we are the means of making the lives of others better.

When someone else's extreme suffering intrudes on our feelings, we have social sentiment. Social responsibility is what we do day in and day out.

*         *          *         *

I think it helps not to have extra money to donate to causes. Kids, after all, learn by doing, not by writing checks.

They learn by shopping for the food pantry ("Let's buy the good stuff, because think of what a bummer it would be if you had to go to the food pantry for Thanksgiving dinner supplies. And think how happy you'd be to see something really yummy in your bag!")

They learn by coming with you when you deliver the meal to the mom with a newborn. ("I betcha Sam's mom is exhausted. So I made them supper to make her day a little easier.")

They learn by having to deal with your absence when you're at a community board meeting, or when you shlep them along to put up fliers for an event, or when you send them on an errand to help a neighbor.

The main thing is that they get the picture by connecting the dots... and there have to be a lot of dots for the picture to make sense.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bad tooth, redux (and resolved)

I headed to the dentist this morning, to have That Tooth extracted. You know the one: the last time they tried to get it out, they broke my jaw, instead.

I got a letter from my insurance company last week saying it won't pay for the previous "extraction", because the dental school hasn't sent them any documentation. Hmmmm. I think one of three things happened: 1) the dental office didn't send documentation because the tooth is still in my mouth, 2) the insurance company has cut back on file clerks, since they'd just assured me last week that they'd reviewed my dental records and there'd been no malpractice, or 3) someone's out to make me crazy.

*        *         *        *

The resident came in and was puttering around. My dental student -- who was going to be observing -- got things ready. The two chatted a bit. The dental student had already shot me full of numbness, and was beginning to put the nitrous oxide to my nose when I stopped her. "He's not going to touch me until he has the decency to introduce himself," I said firmly. Startled, he did.

This is one of the advantages of middle age: if someone younger than you is doing something that's just plain wrong, you have few qualms about saying so. A decade ago I wouldn't have spoken up.

*         *          *          *

It took longer to extract than you'd expect. I thought a lot about how much worse it would have been a hundred years ago, or if I lived in the third world today, or if someone were doing this to me as part of an human experiment during WWII. I offered up whatever suffering I might need to endure, asking that it might be used to alleviate the suffering of others who are undergoing worse pain, including our friend Ken, who is undergoing a major procedure today.

It wasn't too bad -- except when the dentist was twisting a piece of the tooth and I could feel the pressure. Then I had to consciously relax my muscles again and again, and let the process be what it was: scary. It was during a moment like that that my jaw had snapped.

After it was over and I was stitched up, my student dentist asked gently, "How are you now?"
"Not as scared as I was!" I replied.
"Me either," she admitted, "I was praying the whole time!"
"Me too," I said.
"This is a bad memory that will stay with you a long time," she said ruefully.
"Naw," I said, surprising even myself, "The only thing we need to remember about hard things is that we got through them. Learn what you can, and be glad it's over. We'll both be okay."

*         *          *          *

All that said, I'm feeling pretty proud of myself. And sore.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Miscellaneous thoughts on miscellaneous feelings

Yesterday I took Dancer to a doctor's appointment. It was at a clinic that's only open in the mornings, so she had to miss school. The clinic, of course, was slow. We needed blood work done. Then I discovered I didn't have Dancer's insurance card, which was okay for the clinic but not okay for the lab. As my brain scrambled, I talked out loud, trying to figure out how to come back without having Dancer miss another morning of school. My daughter said, "Mom, calm down!"

I didn't think I was all that agitated, but then self-perception isn't everything. Sometimes what matters is how your kid perceives your level of worry.

*         *          *         *

Long ago I gave my kids permission to tell me to stop if I start to rant. They do this. It helps. There are occasions when I get going and have a hard time stopping, but to have a kid comment, reasonably objectively, "Mom, you're ranting!" does tend to put a cork in it.

There are better ways to express frustration and anger than ranting. They're not easy to think of in the moment, but if someone points out what you're doing (and you don't want to be a ranter), you can usually hold it in until you think of a better way to handle your feelings.

*        *         *         *

I hate nagging. To my way of thinking, to nag is the same as to take on the role of being someone else's frontal lobe. I don't want that job. I want others to have their own, functional frontal lobes. I am willing to prompt my kids. I am willing to remind them once, maybe twice. I am willing to work with them to help them figure out how to remind themselves. But I get annoyed if I have to nag.

I would buy supplemental frontal lobes if they sold them, like external hard drives. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Friday, October 11, 2013

The effect of fear

I recently read Cheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. I hadn't planned on reading it, because I'm kind of past that stage in my life, but I do have a college senior this year, and I thought it might be useful to her. It's extremely well done. Lots of wisdom, and very little rant.

One line at the end of the first chapter has been ringing in my head. It's taken from the commencement address Sandberg gave at Barnard in 2011. Her closing lines were, "So go home tonight and ask yourselves, "What would I do if I weren't afraid? And then go do it."

She's nailed something. She's nailed how fears, whether big ones or small, impact our lives. I love this. What would I do if I weren't afraid? Afraid that I'd fail, afraid that others would think less of me, afraid that I couldn't follow through, afraid that it's too much for me.

*        *         *         *

Some years ago, while our family budget was undergoing yet another downsizing, I realized that I was far more anxious about finances than I'd ever been. I'd nipped and tucked at our expenditures until there was nothing more to nip.

I was feeding my family of seven on $125 a week (at New York prices), I was bartering writing services so my kids could do extracurricular activities, I was working part-time to make ends sort-of meet and I was homeschooling three kids, and Big Guy's vast array of support services made it impossible to move. I couldn't get a full-time job, because my kids were already on emotional tenterhooks due to Big Guy's volatility, and I didn't see how they could manage that big a structural change.

Basically, there seemed to be no way out. And that was before Andrew lost his job.

One day, in exasperation at my rising sense of general panic over not being able to make ends meet, I asked myself, "Okay, so what is it you're really afraid of?" The answer came back, I'm afraid we'll lose our home.

So I asked myself the next question. "And what would you do it you lost the house?"

My reply to myself: I don't know, but obviously I'd do something.

The effect of this on my spirit was astonishing. For I realized that the miasma of fear that I'd been living in had at its core the assumption that there was a cliff involved, a cliff that I and my family would fall off of if some sort of miracle didn't occur. The fact that I didn't know what I would do didn't mean I would do nothing. Of course I would do something. It wouldn't be optimal. It wouldn't be easy. But I'd do it. And that made the whole scenario a whole lot less scary.

Once I stopped being afraid, I was better able to do what I could do.

*        *         *          *

I once chatted with a neighborhood dad about his daughter. He confided, "She's got so much energy I'm always afraid she's going to make mistakes and get hurt."

I laughed as I replied, "Oh, you don't have to worry about that! Of course she's going to make mistakes. Of course she'd going to get hurt. She's a kid! The key thing is whether or not she has the skills to recover, and how quickly she can bounce back."

Fear can make us focus on the wrong questions, preventing us from finding the right answers.

*        *         *          *

What would I do if I weren't afraid? I'd write a book called Wisdom: Growing into Being a Better Parent and Person.

When I ask myself exactly why I'm afraid, the answer comes back that I'm afraid I'd discover that some of what I believe is insight gained from working through hard things is wrong, or that people would think that I think I'm wise (which I don't).

I'm also afraid that if I get started, another crisis will occur. Because my life kind of goes like that, you know. Except I would guess that if there's another crisis in the wings, it will happen whether I write a book or not.

Am I asking the right questions?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Event

At the Event, with the wonderful head of the Parks  Department
for northern Manhattan

You may have noticed that I post relatively few pictures on this blog. That's not because I worry about privacy, but because I am photo challenged. My kids are probably the most un-photographed, un-videoed offspring in America. I tend to document life with words. 

The only mirrors in our house are on the medicine cabinets in the bathroom, so I also tend to be surprised when I see what I look like in pictures. I'm not certain if the picture above is a good resemblance or a bad one. But I do like the photo, mainly because I like Jennifer's smile, and I was happy when the shot was taken. As you can see, I'm several years older than when my headshot (in the upper left of the blog) was taken.

With the bigwigs at the Event. The senator has the mike.
Someone recently did a study analyzing Tweets throughout the city, and concluded that our park was the happiest place in Manhattan. The saddest place was one of the high-profile high schools. It's not surprising that being outdoors in beautiful surroundings makes people happy, or that toiling in a cement building with a couple thousand stressed teenagers leads to less cheery sentiments.

The park overlooks the Palisades; one of the Rockerfellers
bought the land so that the view could be preserved
and people could see what it looked like when Hudson arrived .
These photos are not, of course, my doing. I don't even know who took them. But I thought you might like to see them, anyway.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Odds and Ends of Homeschooling

The big medieval festival was here over the weekend. The boys collected all their old Schleich knight figurines, set up a blanket in a prime sidewalk location to sell them, and made a fortune. Afterward, Little Guy set out to scour the neighborhood sidewalk sales, and came home triumphant: he bought a microscope for $20. He had to go out to purchase batteries for it, and then spent hours (and hours) looking at various items. Then on Monday he was at it again.

One of the things I love about homeschooling is the irony of saying, "Stop looking at the microscope and come do your school work!"

*        *         *        *
Years ago we borrowed a CD from the library of presidential campaign songs. The kids loved it, particularly the songs like, "Get on a Raft with Taft" and "Let's Put Barry in the White House". 

Last year for Snuggler's birthday she received the Library of Congress book of presidential campaign posters. This is prime material for what might be called Coffee Table Homeschooling: you leave it out, and they pore over it.

*        *        *         *

Officially, we're learning British history this year. Nonetheless, things like the Keith and Rusty McNeil CDs reappear out of nowhere, and are listened-to in free time. Little Guy recently rediscovered the Civil War set, and he lies on the floor with the songbook, singing along. What I love about this series is that it's easy to listen to, and a fascinating look at the music from both sides of the Civil War. 

*        *        *        *

I picked up the scripts for the musical Honk, Jr tonight. Snuggler will be the voracious cat, who tries to eat Ugly, the duckling. Little Guy is Ugly. It's his first lead. 

The kids are in the other room, already running lines. I don't know what curriculum category that falls in (I will probably tuck it into music), because New York regulations don't include requirements for education in the performing arts. 

*         *          *          *

Snuggler has a regular job as a mother's helper two afternoons a week. With her first fistful of cash she bought a subscription to Creativity Express, an online art appreciation program. I think this is the third time we've bought this; the kids enjoy it, and it's surprisingly content-rich without being heavy. (If you are a homeschooler, you can purchase it at a substantial discount through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op.) 

The advantage of having this program is that it gives me another thing about which I can say, "Yes, you can do that... after your schoolwork is done." 

Friday, September 20, 2013

On Being a Good Person

The benefit for the park was Tuesday night, and I was duly honored. It was lovely. The weather was gorgeous, the Hudson River glittered in the sunset, the food was excellent. The event was sold out, a fact that made me very happy. I am always ridiculously pleased when people contribute to making the world more beautiful, and our park is indeed, a beautiful place.

Siberian elm and asters in fall<br/>Photo by Marcia Garibaldi
The Heather Garden in Fort Tryon Park
Photo from the Fort Tryon Park Trust
To my surprise, both our state senator and soon-to-be city councilman came and stayed for an extended period of time. The senator declared me "an individual worthy of our highest esteem and admiration". The current city councilman's representative said I am "an outstanding individual, one worthy of the esteem of this great city." It's printed up on faux-parchment, so I can gaze upon the words whenever the urge hits. The city proclamation is even framed, with a ribbon and gold-foil seal.

It's moving, but frankly also pretty funny. I mean, how long have you vaguely wanted others to think you are a Good Person? Now I am like the scarecrow from Oz, who thought the problem was that he needed a brain, but found that all he needed was a diploma. I have the documents! It's official! I'm Good! (Heh, heh.)
*        *        *        *

On Saturday I'm teaching a class called "What the Dinosaurs Ate in Fort Tryon Park". I taught this class last year on the day Hurricane Sandy arrived. The rain started to fall just as we finished. The trees started to fall 10 hours later.

If you walk through the park today, the only remnants of the hurricane are 100+ tree stumps. The city was a huge mess at the time, but most of Manhattan has long since recovered. Out in Queens they are still rebuilding. I have to remind myself that there are people who will be rebuilding their lives for years. It's easy to forget that, once your own life has moved on.

The impact of disasters varies from person to person. Big Guy has a friend at his therapeutic school whose father was killed on 9/11. When the towers fell, so did her life. She was five at the time. I think sometimes about this girl's mother, who lost her husband and, in some senses, lost part of her daughter. She probably lost some of her own grounding, too. Putting a life back together is far harder than putting up a Freedom Tower.

To my way of thinking, this is part of why we need to build community, build resourcefulness, build each other up every day. We need to be so deeply in the habit of doing and seeing, of caring and contributing, that it's our default setting. We need to give, not because that makes us Good People or because we get thanks or a proclamation, but because we can.

When we get around to consistently doing what we can because we can, I suspect we'll stop wanting others to think we're Good People... because our hearts will be focused on good itself. Which is, really, far more interesting than the adulation of people around us.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Homeschool 2013-14

Eldest began her senior year of college last week, and Dancer started her sophomore year of high school.

Tomorrow is the first day of Big Guy's senior year of high school. We finally decided -- late last week -- that we'll homeschool Snuggler for 7th grade. We'd already planned on having Little Guy at home, so tomorrow will be the first day of school for them as well. I may be up late tonight figuring out exactly what that means.

Snuggler will be doing Medieval British Lit, starting with Beowulf. It will be a stretch, but for her it's better to go deep, slowing down to whatever pace works, than to trot along reading books without layers. In theory it's a semester-long course; if it takes a year, that's okay.

She's already started her Thinkwell for math, and she and Little Guy will both do the One Year Adventure Novel. (Yeah, I know: neither of them is in high school. But if I can get Little Guy to write anything, it will be progress. And one of the oddities of teaching kids is that sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- setting the bar high gets them over smaller hurdles they think they can't jump. More on that another time.)

I've signed her up for Caveman Chemistry at the homeschool co-op, which we'll supplement with Conceptual Chemistry at home (because we already own the book). We'll also be working through Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking with the help of the MIT Open Courseware syllabus.

She'll also do a class at the historical society that teaches American history through musicals. First up: 1776, along with artifacts and actual documents of the time. Add soccer, a big role in the children's theater musical, being a mother's helper twice a week, and a regular service project, and that's about it for now.

Little Guy will be doing Singapore Math 5, although I realized today that I don't have the workbook. He's going to be on a FIRST Lego League team (robotics), play soccer, and he scored the lead in the children's theater musical (he's Ugly -- the duckling -- in Honk, Jr.) Science will be cells, writing will be endless, though I'm hoping the OT will help with graphomotor skills. We'll split apart the conceptual side (via dictation and, if needed, Dragon Naturally Speaking) from the physical process of composition.

We're doing British history, thanks to Little Guy's obsession with Horrible Histories (you can see samples on YouTube; it's kind of Monty Python meets history). He thinks we should take a field trip to England this spring. I told him I'm up for it, as long as he pays.

It's a plan. Or, as I explained to someone the other day, it's the plan we're starting with. It will be revised as we go along. A lot. Frequently. Because, you know, we're learning. And that requires change, and flexibility, and searching out opportunities for growth.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Thoughts on feeling that you can't make ends meet

There is nothing quite like cleaning a kid's room to re-realized how not-poor you are. I was thinking about it this way:

On the left side of the scale let's put all the things you want for your kids, as well as the desires (for them and for you) that you think of as needs.

On the right pile let's put all the waste: the carelessly broken, unused, good-for-a-week, and no-longer-of-interest toys and games; the leftovers that went bad in the fridge and the food thrown out partly eaten; the collection of single earrings mourning their mates; the clothing that is perfectly good but languishes unliked and unworn in dresser drawers.

It puts some perspective on all those desires, doesn't it? Because all that stuff you're throwing out was once, in some way, desired.

*         *         *          *

I tell my kids they have the right to feel poor on the first day they don't get to eat.

I don't expect them to buy it completely, of course. We all feel poor when others have things we can't afford. We feel poor when we have to work hard at making ends meet. We feel poor when we have to make hard sacrifices and trade-offs. We feel poor when we can't replace things we're used to having, and when we can no longer afford to do things we used to be able to do.

Whether feeling poor is the same as being poor is a different issue. The yardstick doesn't begin with where we are and end with where we want to be. The yardstick begins with poverty we can't imagine, and ends with wealth we wouldn't enjoy. How much of it we see is up to us.

*        *         *         *

A dozen years ago I met someone who managed to scratch three meals out of one chicken for her family of four. I knew how to get two meals for my then-family of five, but was baffled by the third. "Soup," she told me, "I never buy chicken without making soup."

It had never occurred to me to make soup from the scraps. At first it seemed like a ridiculous amount of extra work. But like most things, it doesn't take that much work once you make it part of your routine. It's like baking muffins: less expensive than cereal, better for you, and five minutes to mix up and toss in the oven. Simple. Sometimes we're poorer because we lack the insight to see how much more we can do with what we have.

*          *          *           *

One reason we sometimes feel we don't have enough for our needs is because as soon as we have resources our minds revert to thinking about what we want, instead.

It also think that, aside from being incredibly bad at distinguishing our own needs from wants, we confuse others' needs with what we want for them. This is true when it comes to our kids, and particularly true when it comes to things that we think will make them happy, smart, engaged, interesting or better able to capitalize on their innate abilities.

I hit this wall every year, when I try to reconcile our homeschooling activities with our budget. It is hard to see what would be beneficial but isn't possible. Eventually, every year, I shrug. I can't do everything I think would be beneficial, because that's not one of my options. Instead I do what I can with what I have, and trust that somehow that will grow into what it needs to be.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Updates and such

We're still trying to find a school for Snuggler for the fall. Yes, this fall. That means two weeks from now. It's not an easy process; New York is notorious for being difficult about school placements, and we're looking at a complicated array of needs. I went to visit one school a couple of weeks back, about which I had many questions and for which I only began to find out answers yesterday.

After talking with the school social worker I spoke with the "educational consultant" who is helping us, to de-brief. "I think that woman doesn't like me," I told her, "But she'll get over it!"

*         *          *         *

My mother gave Snuggler a Nook for her birthday. I have mixed feelings about it; I'm beginning to hate what screens do to the family dynamic. But there are benefits, too.

The other night Snuggler downloaded an app called Songify, which turns whatever you say into a pop song. My kids are big Jane Austen fans, so they recorded oddities like "Mr. Darcy eating cheesecake in a bathtub outside", and had them altered into some sort of rap song. It was quite clever. And then all five of them (Eldest is home for an end-of-summer visit) sat around doing preschool karaoke and laughing endlessly.
*         *          *         *

When you have several children, there is an enhancement to the one-thing-always-leads-to-another rule, so one thing leads to two or three things. I dunno what's with that; somebody must think that moms of many have an inner need to stay busy. On Tuesday I took Big Guy for a routine checkup and now I need to set up appointments for allergy shots, an ENT visit, and possibly a sleep study. Yesterday I went for a routine checkup and now I have to schedule a bone density test (thanks to my broken jaw), a dermatology visit, a mammogram, colonoscopy, GYN appointment and, er... something I can't remember. I go back to the dentist in ten days.

*         *          *          *

Nonetheless, things are looking a bit better around here. I know that sounds ridiculous, because the odds that they could get worse (or even continue in the same vein) are pretty small. Snuggler is feeling more like herself. Andrew's depression is lifting. The boys are less anxious. My jaw is healing. I've had work coming in steadily, and even -- gasp! -- had time to do it.

I've been getting plenty of walking in, usually between two and four miles a day. This is easy in the city, because a) we have lots of sidewalks, and b) the alternative is paying for public transportation. At $2.50 per person per trip, it makes sense to walk if at all feasible. I also get in an extra quarter mile walking to the grocery store after discovering someone ate the last butter/milk/bread. And you know how often that happens!

*         *          *          *

Tomorrow I'm off to Big Guy's school for his "senior meeting". Yes, it's his last year in high school. It will also be Eldest's last year in college. Andrew will officially become a senior, too, in October. Me, all I get are senior moments. I think that's okay, don't you?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Healing and growing and something nice

My jaw is doing a lot better. I'm still wired up, but the bulk of the pain is gone. On Monday the dentist told me I was healing nicely... and that I shouldn't chew on the left side for another two weeks. Fortunately I can now chew gently on the right. That's okay; the memory of last week's pain is strong enough that I am still a  long way from yearning for a toasted bagel with cream cheese!

*         *         *         *

This week I've been bogged down in a backlog of work. This is good, inasmuch as it means I have work, but I'm feeling a bit like Katy and the Big Snow, with a whole town to plow through.

When I think of how I've grown up in recent years, learning to plow through hard stuff is definitely near the top of the list. There are skills which help: breaking problems into smaller pieces so they're not so overwhelming, re-framing problems, acknowledging how I feel and then moving on, consciously paying attention to the positives. Getting out and doing things for others, whether it's talking about how to homeschool or how to handle a tricky parenting issue or teaching a class, keeps me from getting too self-absorbed, too.

That said, at this point I'd just as soon have a nice long streak of good luck. The broken jaw was kind of over the top.

*         *        *        *

Fort Tryon Park TrustAs if to signal a change of direction, the other day I ran into the woman who's in charge of the park for our part of Manhattan. “I’ve been meaning to call you,” she said, “Would you be willing to be our honoree for the Fort Tryon Park Trust benefit next month?”

“What would you be honoring?” I asked, jokingly. I’m not a big financial donor. I volunteer at events and teach classes because I can, not for thanks or recognition. I don’t care for awards or shout-outs or thank-you's. 

“We want to honor you for being an asset to our community,” she replied, "For all the things you do." 

I thought about that, and decided I could own it: to be honored for being a light, rather than to bask in the limelight. Besides, this is one of my favorite events of the year, and one that I helped establish. It's pretty awesome to sip wine overlooking the Hudson at sunset. If you can come and support the park on September 17, please do. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Effective Complaining

I've been reading The Squeaky Wheel, which is about effective complaining. There's an epidemic of whining and venting in the world today, and most of it isn't even intended to correct problems.

I'm always interested in solving problems, in making things a wee bit better. But I do neglect to write letters of complaint when I'm sold a bum good, and I don't always call 311 to report (yet another) streetlight out. The author cites a survey which says that the #1 reason people say they don't complain to someone who can fix the problem is that "they don't have time". However, the same people report they vent to between 7 and 10 people about the problem. So the time's there... it's just not spent effectively.

I'm not a big fan of venting. It gets my heart over-focused on the negative. If I "need" to vent to seven people, chances are I'm ruminating, re-experiencing a negative event seven times, instead of processing it.

*        *        *         *

According to the book, another reason people vent instead of complain is that they don't know the right person to contact to fix things. Not in the book: there is a class of problems in life for which there is no correct contact person.

There is no decision-maker whose responsibility is to make a mentally ill person well.

There is no one who can approve a change in a bad relationship to make it better.

And to whom do you complain to fix a chronically ill child?

Those of us who are let's-fix-it types have to be careful to remember that not everything is fixable in the same way. (And yes, even though God can fix things, it's not his job to do our bidding.)

*           *           *           *

My upper left jawbone is fractured. It happened at the dentist, a freak accident. I am not going to sue anyone, though undoubtedly I could (and I'd win). Sometimes complaining -- effectively or not -- is not what one needs to do.

Instead, I spoke to the distraught woman who broke my jaw, and told her I forgave her. My jaw will heal, but perhaps her life would not, without gentle words.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A summer's day

I took Snuggler and Little Guy to the city pool today. This is what it looks like when it's empty:

A sign posted by the entrance says the pool's capacity is 1,407 people. There were not that many there this morning; we arrive when the pool opens, and leave after an hour or so. I'd guess there were 250 people there, so we had plenty of space. It's very big.

It's a long, hot walk to the pool, a mile or more each way through city streets. We stopped on the way home and bought piraguas. The old man scraped ice off his big block of ice, tapped the ice it into a plastic cup, and rounded off the top by pressing a funnel on it. Then he squirted syrup (my kids chose coconut) all over the ice, and stuck a stirrer straw into it. Very refreshing. I suspect he charged us more than if we were Hispanic, but at $1.25 each I'm not going to worry about it.

When we were still eight blocks from home I decided the kids needed something salty, so we stopped in a bodega and bought a small bag of pretzels. Then we wilted our way home, where we sat in front of fans and prayed for the breeze off the river to pick up.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Musings on hard times

Way back when I was single, I took a vacation trip to Spain. My plan was simple: I rented a car in Madrid, and drove until I found a place I wanted to stay. Then I tried to persuade the inn owner to rent a room to a single woman, found a restaurant that would serve a single woman, and went back to the inn to bed.

As I drove south I went through a mountain range. The road was a two-lane highway, and it was only after I had entered a long tunnel that I realized two important things. First, the tunnel was unlit. Second, I didn't know where the headlight switch was on my rental car. Far, far ahead I could see the end of the tunnel.

The question was whether or not I could get there before crashing. I couldn't stop, because a car might come up on me from behind. I couldn't see where the wall was, except by occasionally tapping the brakes to check by dim brake-light.

It was the most terrifying quarter mile I have ever traveled. And when I finally emerged into daylight, the road lacked a shoulder onto which I could pull over so I could heave my guts out. I had no choice but to keep going.

*         *          *          *

I have been feeling glum the past couple of days. The road ahead of me appears very long and dark. It is hard, after having traveled a rough path for a decade with Big Guy, and a long stretch with other woes, to contemplate handling yet more difficulty. The one reason I know I can do it is that I can't afford not to. Like driving in that Spanish tunnel, I don't have any choice but to keep going.

The I-don't-want-to's of life are long and numerous. They easily morph into I-can'ts. But as soon as you say 'I can't', chances are that you're lying to yourself. This is one of the huge benefits of big, big problems: it doesn't matter if you don't want to. You have to. And then you learn that you can.

*         *          *          *

I saw a friend yesterday I haven't seen in a while. She asked how I'm doing, and I replied, "A lot of my prayers these days start with, 'Really, God? I mean... really?'" We laughed. Sort of. She has been through a lot this year, too; I spent a couple of weeks this spring coaching her through her 15yo's hospitalization for depression. It was something helpful I could do. Being helpful gives me joy and a sense of purpose.

*          *         *         *

I am a person of faith. I believe that everything happens for a purpose, yet I don't believe that purpose always has to do with me. The Bible verse that people like to quote in hard time, "For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11) comes smack in the middle of what God said to a nation that was being exiled to Babylon for 70 years. Yes, exiled for a lifetime. And that promise was made to an entire nation, not to an individual.

Lemme tell ya, bad stuff happened to those exiles. They endured misery until they died. The promise was true -- it just didn't happen to come true in their lifetime. There are times when the greater good subsumes the individual good. There are times we're called on to be the ones who suffer for no currently-visible reason.

It's taken me a while to be okay with that. Hope doesn't necessarily have to be the kind of hope we 21st-century Americans are accustomed to having. We think in terms of personal outcomes and personal goals and personal happiness. If you ever get to the place where you have to let go of all that, it's actually kind of a relief. You can start thinking about having hope in God, rather than hope in what God will do for you. And you start to understand -- just a little bit -- that what's going on here on your section of the face of the earth this week or month or year is neither the beginning nor end of the story.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Quick update

We returned from Cub Scout camp yesterday, a day earlier than the rest of the pack, because I had to teach a nature class on ladybugs today. It's a popular class, though not with my family: one year I rushed out and left a container with a couple hundred ladybugs open on the counter. The house swarmed and the kids complained. This year I was careful to close the container.

*         *          *          *

Camp this year began with a thunderstorm at bedtime. Four scouts neglected to bring flashlights, and since coincidentally they were rooming together (two in a tent), they had a dark time of it. But at least they didn't have to see the spiders who came in to get out of the rain. A third of the pack had no rain gear.

On day two our kids went exploring (an intrepid 20 feet behind our site) and one came back shouting, "I saw a raccoon with a black and white tail!" Another asked if raspberries are poisonous. This is what camping with city kids is like.

*         *          *           *

I have received a pile of email following my piece a couple of weeks back in Daily Guideposts 2013, which mentioned that Andrew was out of work. Yes, it's true, even two years later. For reasons I won't go into, he is not looking for a full-time job at this time.

Yes, that does make life a bit complicated.

*         *          *          *

Snuggler is still a long way from well, but seems to be a bit more stable. We have been painting the girls' room, which is the kind of project one can do in stages, according to how much energy one has. We should have it finished by the time Dancer returns at the end of the month.

While I was away, Big Guy turned 17. He seems to think that means he needs to acquire a sudden case of maturity. I told him I didn't feel like an adult until I held Eldest in my arms, so if he chooses just one way he wants to grow up this year, that's fine.

*         *          *          *

One thing I learned at Cub Scout camp is that every kid is working on something. Some kids need to learn honesty, and others courage; some are learning to manage anxiety, and others are in the process of taming a temper or reining in impulses. It's rather refreshing to see so clearly that it's not just me, and not just my kids: it's all of us. We've all got ways we need to grow. It's normal.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Thank you all for your prayers. I'd love to say we've turned a corner, but I am resting in the fact that our road is curving toward a better direction. Snuggler is, I think, out of immediate danger. Fortunately, sometime in the past couple of years I stopped being afraid of (and discouraged by) the hard stuff. I love that kid!

Dancer is in Miami, in technique and pointe and toning classes all day, except when she's learning repertoire. The night before she left she went to the ballet, so she could see the Famous Ballerina perform. Then it was up at 6am and off to the airport. She is tired beyond tired, and maybe beyond that!

Eldest is in week three of her summer job. She is working for a professor who is developing a program to teach kids to program computers. She is doing "back end" work; I gather that's the part one doesn't see, but don't tell her I have no idea what she's really doing.

Big Guy got his SAT results, which were extremely pleasing. Dancer was happy with her SAT II/Biology score, too. I have sent in my end-of-year homeschool report on Little Guy to the regional office, and officially closed out fourth grade. We are still awaiting the results of Little Guy's OT evaluation. I have to schedule an appointment for him with the the developmental optometrist.

We have no big plans for summer. I think we are going to paint the entire apartment, once I teach the kids how to spackle and paint. Little Guy and I are heading back to Cub Scout camp in July, because one can never get enough of large spiders and hyperactive 9-year olds. Big Guy is going to tour two colleges here in the city. Three of my kids will have birthdays.

It's hot, it's humid, and life rolls on. It's not always comfortable, and some days last way too long, and still: it's better to be moving on than to be stuck where you were. As Winston Churchill said, "When you're going through hell... keep going."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A small insight about why kids don't share everything with mom

I observed a mother and her teenage daughter interacting the other day, and suddenly understood why kids can tell total strangers the secrets they won't tell their parents. It's because our kids love us.

When our kids love us, they don't want to hurt or disappoint or worry us, or have us think less of them. And they know that no matter how good a face we put on it, deep down we have a reaction. When a child is hurting, he or she can't afford to deal with our reactions on top of that.

That is why a parent can't be a child's therapist or complete confidante: because love gets in the way.

We will always know our children better than anyone else. But a child can count on a professional to be impartial. There's no risk of losing desperately-needed approval and affection. Which means that sometimes the reason kids don't confide in us has nothing to do with lack of trust, but with an abundance of love.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Brain cells, manna and zucchini

It's been a quieter week than any in recent memory, quiet enough that I am inclined to take my spare brain cell out of cold storage and see if I can get a synapse going with the remaining functional one in my head.

Brain Cell Plush Doll
Brain cell. I bought my spare at Giantmicrobes.com
After the frenzy of May I have a lull in my workload. That means I'm thinking about what I might do with my life, which direction I should head, what I should write next. This is hubris, of course. I know that other people make and actually execute plans for the future, but that is not how my life goes. When there's a job I'm supposed to do it whacks me in the face. When I make plans of my own something major derails them. I have learned to prioritize flexibility over five-year planning. 

I am mindful that the just-enough just-in-time flow of work that characterizes my professional life is a huge gift. The flip side of it that I have far less control over my life (and budget) than I'd like. Manna is great for a short-term crisis. But after a number of years of it, I'd prefer a different solution. 

*        *        *        *

I've pondered manna a lot in recent years. It's occurred to me that one major challenge for the wilderness generation must've been their perpetually whining children. Never mind that 5 p.m. low blood-sugar meltdown; imagine the daily complaint, "Manna again, Mom?" I imagine  the parental reply was often a bit testy.

You'd think that after a decade or so the kids gave up asking, and that perhaps the parents clued into the fact that their own whining to God sounded a lot like their kids', but this was not the case. We are slow learners, we humans, especially in spiritual matters. Forty years in the desert of day-in, day-out dependence on God for survival might be enough time to trust him day-in and day-out, but probably not. 

I sometimes suspect that Adam and Eve left their spare brain cell behind in the Garden of Eden. You know which one I mean: the one that allowed them to remember the lesson they had been taught.

*        *         *         *

When I was a girl, my dad had a truck garden a few miles from home. The summer I was 17 and had my first full-time job, the family went on vacation without me. I had to tend the garden in their absence. It was a bonanza year for green beans and zucchini, and I picked and hauled home a grocery bag of each daily. Then I sat on the front steps of our suburban home, snapping ends off of beans in the evening, watching the neighborhood or chatting with friends. I'd blanch the beans, let them cool, and put them in freezer bags.

The zucchini were another matter. There are many ways to cook it, and that summer we tried them all. I like zucchini. But after you've had steamed zucchini, baked zucchini, zucchini bread, zucchini casserole, stuffed zucchini  and stewed zucchini, you begin to realize that no matter what you do to it, it's still zucchini. Slice it, dice it, rice it, spice it -- it's zucchini.

There are lots of things in life like that. When I use my spare brain cell, I know there is nutritional value in zucchini, even when you're sick of eating it. There are things we learn when we are forced to go past what we like, past what we want, past what we think we can stand. There are good things we can learn from not-getting our desires, from not-escaping a hard situation, from being pushed into learning 400 ways to cook what we've been given. 

There are things you learn about zucchini that you suspect you could have gotten through life without. There are things you'd rather have not learned.

Perhaps what we want is for zucchini (and manna) to be optional. We appreciate it when we know we need or want it, but only then. The rest of the time it's just zucchini.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Working at the margin

One of the best insights in the book Switch was the observation that when we have a crater-size problem we tend to look for crater-size solutions. The authors point out that this is a mind trap: there's absolutely no rational reason we can't fill a crater with small stones.

There are a lot of situations in life we can approach one pebble at a time. In fact, with the bigger problems we have to do this. We aren't strong enough to heft boulders and meteorites. We often don't know where to find them. And there are pebble-size things everywhere.

Sometimes when we face great difficulties we feel helpless because we can't do anything substantial to make things better; the only things we can do are at the margin. There are two things I'd note about this:

First, wounds heal from the edges. They don't heal all at once; they start healing at the margin. If you can do something about the margin, it matters.

Second, what happens at the margin isn't always visible. What you do isn't going to give you the kind of satisfaction you get from cleaning a closet or painting a wall. Nonetheless, it matters.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Life here has been so over-the-top lately that it defies description. On Wednesday, however, a thin beam of sunshine made its way through the darkness. It is amazing how much  of a difference that can make.

I think sometimes about how a handful of stars in the night sky are a comfort, even if they don't illuminate your path. The thing is, you have to look up to see them. If all your energy is focused on your feet, on not-stumbling, you miss the solace and light that's given to you.

*        *         *         *

I do believe feet are important, however. I mean, an awful lot is possible -- way more than we think -- when we concentrate on always taking the next step. Paralysis keeps you where you are, which usually makes matters worse. As Winston Churchill said, "When you're going through hell... keep going."

Sometimes our feet have more faith than our hearts. Sometimes, when hope is hard to come by, our feet keep us moving along the path of helping and serving and praying. They take us places and keep us doing the things we must do, even when we don't feel motivated or charitable or inspired.

People (myself included) make the mistake of thinking everything has to start from the heart. It's not so. Sometimes when we go ahead and do what needs to be done, eventually our heart catches on.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Odds and ends (again)

Andrew and I celebrated our 20th anniversary yesterday. It was a quiet celebration, crammed in between appointments and work and crises. Dancer made an almond cake from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Foods and Wines of Spain:

Big Guy helped me make Chinese Mango Chicken from the awesome Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge:

Andrew brought tulips and a bottle of wine. The kids raised a toast to us with sparkling cider. We didn't eat until late because of a plot twist with my PTSD child, who suddenly has intense paranoia. For a while we thought we'd be non-celebrating in the ER. And then this morning it looked again like we were on our way there. But so far we have squeaked past that. Could be a side effect of meds, could be something new.

You never know what the next ten minutes will bring. Sometimes it's peace. Sometimes it's not. Put a lot of ten-minuteses together, and somehow you arrive at 20 years.

*         *         *        *

We had a piece of good news today: the College Board granted all of our requests for accommodations for the SAT for Big Guy. We'd been told the best chance of success would be to be able to include a letter from his doctor outlining the specific medical reason/diagnosis for each accommodation needed. Big Guy takes the test in June.

Which reminds me: I need to buy gauze today for his infected toes. Yes, I know that's a non-sequiteur.

*         *         *        *

I haven't felt like writing lately, which is odd. There's too much going on, with too many people, on too many levels, to filter it all and order it into words and sentences and paragraphs. Yet one of the main ways I make sense out of chaos is by putting it in words. 

Also, I'm kind of fried from editing six masters' theses in two weeks. Dunno how Martin Luther nailed 95 of'em.

*        *         *          *

Little Guy's end-of-year standardized test arrived the other day. I stared at it, astonished that I'd remember to order the thing. This is the kind of thing that, pre-children, I never would have known could make a mother happy. Really? You're proud that you remembered to do something that's been on your to-do list for a month?! Yes, really.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Recovering from fear

The subways in our part of town are deep underground, so deep that there are large elevators to bring you to the surface. On Tuesday night Little Guy, two Cub Scout friends, and a Cub Scout dad and I got onto the elevator on our way home. As the doors closed a white man suddenly yelled at a tall young black woman, "Why do you keep pushing me?" She smiled weakly and gave him an I-don't-know-what-you're-talking about look; it was clear she didn't know him, and was taking the New York approach to avoiding conflict. Then he whacked her take-home dinner out of her hands and onto the floor, and started yelling and punching her.

People immediately intervened. He stopped, but then started again. At one point (it felt like a long elevator ride!) four of us had him backed against the wall, and yet he was still shouting at the woman. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He barely seemed to notice that he was surrounded; he still wanted a fight.

The boys, thankfully, could not see what was happening because they were on the other side of the car. I could hear them shrieking, "I'm scared!" When we finally got to street level one said, "Let's get out of here!" and they took off. I was relieved; you never know which way fear will go, and it was better that they were out of the way than frozen in place. I later learned that someone told them to stick together. They did.

As the car emptied, five of us stayed to make sure the woman was able to get off safely. The drunk was still ready to charge at her. It took a minute or so for us to get off the car, then a couple of minutes to get out of the station vestibule. When we finally got outside, the drunk was still trying to continue the fight. At that point the woman took a picture of him with her phone; he whacked the phone out of her hand. I called 911. A young man took off his backpack and offered to fight the man if he wanted a fight. The assaulted woman urged him not to. He listened to her.

The police arrived, and the good people of my neighborhood, the ones who immediately stood up for the woman, who stayed to keep her safe, also stayed to talk to the police. It's not enough to just place the call; if the police arrive and no one is there to act as a witness, there's not much they can do.

*         *          *         *

At some point in our lives, most of us accept that we can't control everything. There are people who do bad things and make bad choices, and the best we can do is choose to do the right thing in response. I was very, very glad to live in my neighborhood on Tuesday night. People chose to do the right thing. The woman will have to live with this crazy memory, but she'll also have the memory of people helping her, protecting her, sticking by her.

Little Guy is nine, and he doesn't have that kind of perspective.  It was a scary situation, and he was terrified. "I was scared the man was going to hit you, Mommy!" he told me later. Well, yes. That was a possibility. The guy, in fact, did take a swing at me (though my son didn't see it).

I told Little Guy this was the first time I've ever seen something like this in my 25 years in New York. That didn't provide much comfort to him.

Little Guy said, dozens of times, "I'm scared!" I eventually said, "You sound like a CD that's gotten stuck!" He laughed. I suggested amending the thought, as in, "I'm scared... and I'm okay" or "I'm scared... and everyone did the right thing." It was a good idea, and for a less-anxious kid it might have worked.

I talked him through all the good things that had happened: that people made good choices, that they helped the woman, that they came forth as witnesses, that no one was seriously hurt, that he and his buddies made a good decision to get out of there, that the police were helpful. I asked him to think of the things he could be thankful for. That took the edge off his fear... momentarily.

I had him do his deep breathing. We identified the thinking traps he was in ("it will always be like this" and "expecting bad things to happen"). We prayed for the people involved, including the drunk man. Finally, he went to sleep.

*         *          *         *

I was talking to my PTSD kid's home therapist (someone comes to our house on the days we don't visit the regular therapist), who noted that if you have three babies in a room and a book falls on the floor, one may wail, one may startle, and one may barely notice the sound. We each have an innate sensitivity to things that cause distress. With babies, adults tend to respond to this sensitivity as a need, picking up the wailing infant, perhaps patting the one who startled, and merely smiling in the direction of the low-maintenance child. With kids, we tend to view it as a character flaw, or at least as an annoyance. As children get older, we somehow expect things to equalize. They don't, necessarily. At least not without help.

People also differ in how long it takes them to "return to baseline". If three babies respond with equal distress to a stimulus, one may recover in a few moments, another in a few minutes, and still another after ten minutes. It helps to know that this is innate as well, because it frames the problem of a slow-returner differently, perhaps lowering the likelihood of parental exasperation. We tend to expect that by a certain age all kids will get over an upset within some remotely reasonable timeframe. Not all do, or can, without tools to help them.

Note that none of this is a matter of the child being "not normal" -- their responses to fear are entirely normal for them. The issue to focus on is how to help the child become more functional. A baby needs mom to soothe her; a child needs mom to help her learn how to soothe herself. Kids who have a naturally slow return to baseline need techniques to help them re-frame situations and calm themselves a bit faster.

Fear happens. So does recovery from it. Eventually.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hope, in the moment

In recent years I've realized that much of what passes for hope these days is hope for an outcome. This is interesting (not to mention challenging) to me, because as a person of faith I'm called to have hope. Specifically, I'm called to have hope in God. That is different than hoping God will do something for me, like give me the outcome I want.

Last night I went for a walk with a neighborhood friend. She, too, is facing numerous  challenges. As I told her a bit of what was going on in my life, she rolled her eyes and said, "You must be constantly praying, 'Lord, get me through this!'"

"Well actually, no," I replied, surprised to hear myself say it, "I've almost completely stopped praying that." And it's true. Somewhere in recent months, as things have reached ever more ridiculous levels of impossibility, I've stopped the Calgon prayers. My first impulse is no longer to escape, but to be present.

A few weeks back I was trying to encourage/persuade/convince my PTSD child to break a large task (getting up and getting dressed) into smaller chunks. First, sit up. After that, stand up. Then take off the jammie top. Etcetera. We were aiming for the really basic stuff. The child refused to do any of it, because it was too scary.

I could feel my frustration rising, which is what happens when I don't know what to do. So I did what I always do in that (embarrassingly common) situation: I prayed for the words that were needed.

What came out was this: "I'm not asking you to do anything you can't. But I am asking you to do every single thing that you can."

Oh. Oh, yes! That was exactly it. If you can sit up, do that, and focus only on that one thing. If you can stand up, do that, and focus on the one thing. Do what you can, step by step, until you reach the point where you truly cannot go further.

It was exactly what I needed to hear, too. Because I think that's what God asks of us: to do every single thing we can do.

God doesn't ask me to handle this whole impossible thing: in this moment, I'm being asked to do what's required for this moment. That's all. And that I can do. It's the old, "Take care of the moment, and you take care of eternity" thing.

Here's the thing:
I can't do it if I'm focused on more than what is asked of me for that moment.
I can't do it if I'm focused on what I fear will be asked of me in the future.
I can't do it if I'm focused on how much I don't want to be in this situation.
I can't do it if I'm focused on the echoes of past difficulties or frustrations.
I can't do it if I'm focused on my lack of wisdom on what to do.
I can't do it if I'm focused on anything other than being 100% there, open to whatever I need to be open to, with a heart that yearns to do what is asked of me.

It helps me understand hope in God differently. And to have more hope, in general.

It makes so much sense to me. Does it make sense to you?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Life with a child in crisis

My child sobbed the other day, "Mommy, I'm sorry I'm broken. I don't want to create problems for the family."

I swallowed the football-size lump in my throat enough to reply, "Sweetie, I'm sad, too." Pause. Think. Pray. Then, "None of us want you to be broken. But you don't have to feel bad about the fact that you've fallen apart. And you don't have to stay broken, you know. We're all working to help you get put back together"

Oh, it's hard. It's hard to see your child suffer, hard to not-know if or when things will turn around, hard to manage a very complex situation. One afternoon last week I felt like a total failure. I told my child's therapist that it is wearying to try so hard and to give everything I have to give, and still not succeed. She replied gently, "Your child is alive. Your child is not in the hospital. That is success. That is because of you."

I dried my tears and thought, Okay. I can hold on to that. It's not much. On the other hand, it's everything.

*        *        *        *

The child in crisis is perpetually cranky, snapping irrationally at minor things, melting down over next to nothing. Not surprisingly, this triggers the other children. They don't like being screamed at, they feel unjustly accused, they snap back. The family is a pinball machine of anxiety, with one kid pinging off another. The situation exacerbates Big Guy's anxiety issues, another child's anxiety issues, Andrew's anxiety issues.

I keep an eye on my own tension level. When others start to blow I whisper, "Use a gentle voice. Stay calm. Get through the next five minutes." I succeed at this a surprising amount of the time. This is not due to me; it's abundantly clear that I'm not capable of doing what I'm doing. Someone, somewhere must be praying for me. For this I am thankful.

*        *         *         *

There is another snarling-screaming-weeping child incident and I dig deep, searching to find compassion. I know that somewhere behind my child's rank irritability lies pain, and I need to respond to that rather than react to the behavior it causes.

It is hard to shove aside my desire to scream, explode, snap back. I do it because although the short-term effort is exhausting, the long-term consequence of falling apart myself is too expensive to contemplate.

*        *        *         *

At night I wrestle with my ego. It is hard to feel like a good mom when your child falls apart. I cringe at the thought that I've ever offered advice to anyone. Who, me? Me, whose family seems to be in perpetual crisis?

I grapple with the difference between shame and humility. Shame is the I don't want others to know piece, the fig leaf behind which I hide to preserve the image I want people (including myself) to have of me. Humility is honest nakedness, the here-I-am-ness, the willingness to say, "This is hard and I'm bumbling along, probably making mistakes... stay with me. Please."

Sometimes heroism consists of doing something as simple as crumbling the fig leaf. Sometimes, but not always, I can be heroic.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Staying calm, staying safe

A long while back I made up a list of things kids need to know before heading off to college. To this I will add the following:

        If there's national news taking place near you, call home.

Um... yeah. Eldest is safe. She was not at the marathon, she was not in the building where the security officer was shot, she is apparently not too distraught. I believe the colleges are all still on lockdown, and the wildest activity seems to have moved to different parts of town.

*         *         *         *

In its own way it's easier to be close to a disaster than far away. After 9/11 the people of New York had the advantage of a) knowing just how bad things really were (which is far better than imagining), and b) hearing all the survivor stories. Walking down the street made one infinitely grateful to be alive. Seeing neighbors I barely knew gave me joy. For weeks what we heard about were the close shaves, the common experiences of survival. It was a lot of humanity; from a distance and in the news you don't hear about the many, many gestures of goodwill that follow in the wake of tragedy.

*         *         *         *

Two FREE stress-reduction resources we've discovered, which may be helpful to someone, somewhere:

PTSD Coach is an app with a variety of tools for soothing anxiety. Worth having if you're prone to stress or panic; don't get scared off by the name.

Free guided meditation and relaxation MP3 recordings from NYU help bring down the adrenaline and refocus thoughts away from the negative.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A good day

We had a good day today. I am taking note of it, because we have been having such a long string of hard days that I felt almost giddy with repeating, "Thank you!" today.

There are things I want to write about but can't, out of respect for the privacy of my kids. Suffice it to say that Big Guy's 911 incident triggered some major difficulty for one child, who has now been diagnosed with PTSD. We're talking visceral nightmares, panic attacks, endless waves of anxiety, spurts of rage and irrational behavior. It's been a ride. At the same time, another child has been having aftereffects that flare up once a week or so, and trigger other problems. (What can I say? -- around here, it's hard to be a contender in the Crisis Olympics!)

One blessing: my dad arrived on Monday for an 8-day visit. He'd asked what he could do to help, and when I couldn't think of anything concrete, he offered to come and simply be. It is an amazing comfort. Plus he cooked supper for us last night. He's 80, and you may recall he broke his back two years in a row and then got hit by a car and still goes skiing.

Another blessing: we have so, so many good people helping us.

Another blessing: our state-sponsored insurance is covering crisis intervention, therapy, everything.

Another blessing: I think I have been more patient in the past month than any other time in my life. That isn't to say I'm approaching perfection, but I feel I've finally learned something. If I figure out what it is, I'll tell you. If not, I'm sure I'll need to learn it again, anyway.

Another blessing: All those years of learning to break big problems down into smaller problems have been really, really helpful. That's helped me develop the habit of focusing on what I can do instead of on what I can't. This is incredibly useful. A related thought: I love the point that the Heath brothers make in Switch, that although we tend to think a crater-size problem requires a crater-size solution, it doesn't. You can fill in a crater a pebble at a time. Sometimes that's the only choice you have: to do the little stuff that takes you a little bit closer to your goal.

Another blessing: I have had a ton of work, and somehow that has kept me sane (and driven me crazy, too, for lack of time to do it.)

Another blessing: The dog sprained his tail. It was one of those weirdnesses that makes you realize that life can be plain quirky at times. Although he looked pathetic and sad, shifting uncomfortably when he tried to sit down, the sheer ludicrousness of a dog spraining his tail kind of made life more bearable. (He's getting better now, and can wag again. Which is another blessing.)

I have no illusions that today is the start of a good trend; I can't afford to think like that. I don't know what tomorrow will bring. I do know that today brought thankfulness, and a respite, and a chance to be happy for a while. I figure my job is to treasure this day in my heart, so that on some bleak day in the future I can take out the memory, and remember that gray is not the color of eternity. There are other colors splashed into my life, too.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Long day

I've been having a bit of a time of it here, on a scale previously unimagined. Yesterday was one of
those days that defies description in under 100,000 words. I posted on Facebook, "Kinda feeling like I'm in the midst of a war zone. How many things can explode in one day?"

My friend Karen, who also has five kids, replied, "I've found that there is no limit to the number of things that can explode in a day. I will pray that there is a silver lining in your mushroom cloud."

This is why I occasionally use Facebook: people make me laugh. I like to laugh.

*       *        *        *        *

I started writing a post yesterday about making genuine progress on handling successive and even concurrent crises with less aggravation and more grace. Tonight I said to Andrew, drily, "It seems I still have more to learn about humility!"

*       *        *        *        *

At the end of the very long day, Big Guy said, "Mom, since I'm in an honest mood, there's something else I need to tell you." I nodded. "Today after I had my upset in school I thought I wanted to kill myself."

It is a measure of my day that I replied, "So what did you do with that thought?"

Big Guy looked puzzled. I elaborated, "What did you do after you had the thought?"

He replied, "Oh. I let it pass."

I said, "Good! That's exactly what you need to do with thoughts like that: if you have'em, let'em move on! Congratulations!"

He looked startled, but pleased.

*       *        *        *        *

At bedtime, my phone rang. It was a friend, calling on behalf of someone she knew who needed to know the preferred pediatric psych emergency rooms. I gave her the 5-minute rundown, and encouraged her to give my name and number to her friend. Note to the world: If you are ever in the position of even thinking you might need to take a child to the psych ER, you are absolutely going to call me.

*       *        *        *        *

Little Guy awoke with a leg cramp at 1:30 a.m. Somewhere deep down I was sympathetic, but frankly that part of me wasn't awake. I've always told my kids that I am not a good mother after 9 p.m., because it's true. (Once, when Dancer was little and I snarled at her, she wailed, "But Mommy, it's only 8:58!") I muttered to my son to go get a hot water bottle. 

A while later I heard talking in the living room. I staggered out and found Snuggler bending over Little Guy, rubbing his calf. "I'm helping him," she said.

"Why are you awake?" I asked, thinking only of school this morning, and the impossibility of getting her up at 7 a.m.

"I have stomach cramps," she replied. I shooed her back to the sofa, where she'd nestled up under a mountain of blankets, and settled Little Guy in my bed with the hot water bottle. Then I came out to  tuck Snuggler in tight, hoping against hope that she'd get some sleep. She's had gruesome dreams every night for weeks, and distinctly dislikes the dark now.

By the time I returned to my room, Little Guy was asleep. In my bed. I lay down on the sleeping bag he'd set up on the floor (he's had trouble with sleep, too). It was pretty cozy, though the hardwood was a challenge.

Just as I was drifting off, I heard Snuggler get up. Groan. I went out and persuaded her to climb in with me. I listened for her breath to settle into a pattern before allowing myself to go back to sleep. But just as I was drifting off, Snuggler got up. She headed back to sleep on the sofa. I vaguely hoped that would work for her, and fell asleep.