Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lessons from Addie

We went on a little trip a few weeks back.  A family trip.  Short, but a real, true vacation.  The kids came with us, but there was loads of free daycare provided, so we got to have time during the day to be together as grown-ups, like a couple!  It was amazing.

But it started out rocky as hell.

Addie just wasn't excited about it.  She was going to be missing her dance recital at school, and I think too she is still a little nervous going into new experiences, even though she historically has been very resilient and handled them quite well.  But on this trip, she was pretty intent on making things difficult.  Her stomach hurt.  She wanted to stay in our (incredibly tiny) room and watch t.v. instead of going swimming or playing games or attending kids' activities.  She pouted, she whined, she cried.  She wouldn't eat.  We were pulling our hair out and feeling really exasperated, and maybe didn't respond very nicely.  At all.

We know now that there was a medical problem underlying some of her physical complaints (more on that soon) but the main ingredient was emotional.  I had been pretty frustrated with Addie the first day or two:  we had spent a lot of money, and I felt like I really needed a vacation, for God's sakes, and couldn't she just be a big girl for these few days and have some fun?

It's hard to force people to have fun, if you haven't noticed.

Finally I got wise, and on the second day of the trip leaned down to Addie and whispered, "If there's ever, ever anything you need to talk to me about, you just please let me know, and I'll make time for the two of us to be together, and we can talk it over."

She was quiet for a minute, and then responded, "I do have something we need to talk about."

So we let Nolie and E. do their own thing for a while and we retired to our really very tiny room and had a talk, where Addie--in a quiet but steady voice--told me that she felt me and E. were being too hard on her, that we only liked Nolie, and that she didn't feel like we loved her.


I assured her right away that our behavior would change immediately, and that she was absolutely right about us being too hard on her, and that we could never love one of our kids more than the other, it was just physically and mentally and spiritually impossible.  And then I sucked it up and acted as cheerful and positive as Pollyanna.  Man, was that some kind of acting job!  Interesting how I expected her to be so cheerful and then had a hard time manufacturing cheer myself, isn't it?  But the acting was was good enough.

Because after that, she perked right up, got excited about swimming and kids' camp and eating, and we had a great rest of the vacation.

Ah, jeez.  There's so many lessons to be learned here.  To not be hard first.  To listen to my kids.  To ask them to talk to me, and then be available to listen and respond meaningfully.  To pay attention to signs and signals, especially indirect ones.  To believe the highest and best about my children.  To slow down.  To make time for them (by the way:  one of my favorite ways to do this is to schedule special "dates" with them--a trip out to lunch, a visit to the library, some craft time.  Just with one at a time.  I don't think it matters what you do, just as long as you clearly label it "our time" and give them all of your attention).

I don't know.  All this is just evidence that these are exactly the kids I was supposed to have.  I mean, they're such amazing teachers.  I'm so lucky to learn from them.  But school isn't always easy.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It's been longer than I expected since I last posted.  There have been so many days where I've thought, "I should write about that," and then something else comes up or it just feels so much better to fall in bed and sleep, or the dog needs a walk, or I just need to eat a bowl of ice cream and watch The Daily Show with E.  And, too, when you've been away awhile, you wonder why you write to begin with, and whether it wouldn't just be best to let things go.  But here I am again, compelled.

We've been facing some interesting challenges lately.  One of the ministers at unchurch uses that word "interesting" to describe anything that feels challenging or difficult or bad.  I think she uses it because it's sometimes better to avoid forming a story around an event that prohibits us from seeing the positive that can come out of it, or to label it in a way such that our story about it becomes worse than the event itself.  I like it.  It reminds me of Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, wherein he finds that when people can find positive significance to hardship or tragedy, they are much more likely to live happy and full lives.  Calling things "interesting" also encourages me to be more of an observer of my life and less caught up in all its little ups and downs.

Things have been interesting.  I had a reaction to an allergy shot that landed me in the e.r.; we took Addie to the doctor for some tummy aches and found out she had bronchitis and a chronic stomach condition that requires some significant attention and changes on all of our parts; E's work is having some interesting cash flow challenges; my work is having some interesting personnel dynamics.

I have had my moments of freak-out.  Don't let me misrepresent.  But I've also been grateful for the extended autumn we're having, with the amazing colors, for the geese flying by, for the beauty of my family, for the peace of everyday work and chores, for the kindness people so often show one another, for parties, for laughter, for love.  Another reverend at unchurch saw a flock of geese fly outside our classroom window during an intense morning storm.  It was breathtaking.  She was silent for a moment and then said, "Oh thank you, geese, thank you."  Turning inward with gratitude, then projecting it outward, has helped tremendously.

And this, from Byron Katie's amazing book Loving What Is, which has been for me one of those books that comes along at just the right moment:

I can find only three kinds of business in the universe:  mine, yours, and God's.  (For me, the word God means "reality."  Reality is God, because it rules.  Anything that's out of my control, your control, and everyone else's control--I call that God's business).  

Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business.  When I think, 'You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,' I am in your business.  When I'm worried about earthquakes, floods, war, or when I will die, I am in God's business.  If I am mentally in your business or in God's business, the effect is separation.  

If you are living your life and I am mentally living your life, who is here living mine?  We're both over there.  Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own.  I am separate from myself, wondering why my life doesn't work.

Ah, this clarified a lot for me.  Just noticing how awesome I am in other people's business, how often I fight with reality (so many "shoulds" in my brain!) has been a clarifying experience.  Honestly, I had started to worry that maybe something was wrong with me, that I couldn't be happy.  I was deeply confused.  But really, I was just separate from myself.  When I can inhabit my center, stay in my own business, and locate grace and gratitude within, I feel deeply satisfied and joyful.  So simple!  And so easy to forget.  The paradox of my spiritual life.

Here I am, though, back on the blog, and hoping to post more frequently.  Addie and Nolie are growing up so fast.  Addie makes me tell her stories about when she was a baby every night now (I'm going to run out soon!) and Nolie is on a vocabulary quest (mama, what does listless mean?  How about product?  How about contraption?).  What a blessing this crazy existence is.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hello, and See Ya

It's been a rough time at work.  Have you guessed that?  There's not much I can say yet, except that the recession has hit my workplace, if not financially, then at least mentally.  There is a scarcity mentality, and there is meanness, and a lack of respect for others.  Oh, and much misunderstanding.

But that is all I can say for now.

What can be said is that I've been grasping at moments of grace wherever I can find them, and trying to stay whole when everything feels as if its pulling me into a million tiny fragments.  These moments of grace have come in the form of phone calls from friends and family; E., who always listens calmly and has my back; from the laughter and joy of my girls; from Milo and the crazy kitties; from the beauty of nature; from the beauty of things; from hot baths and red wine and the everyday.  And this, the view from Van Bibber, where I try to walk Milo whenever I can:

We are so blessed.  And still I struggle.  My real struggle has been to stay in the present and not get lost in the elsewhere of wondering and guessing at and scheming.  Life in the present is pretty good.

I am away until next weekend, thankfully, but I'll be back posting soon.  I hope things are well for you, and know things will turn around for me, too, soon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vegetables and Marriage

The last page in the most recent issue of Orion Magazine is by Katrina Vandenberg, "On Cold-Weather Vegetables."

This post may or may not be about vegetables.

This excerpt from her article caught my eye:

I watch my husband from the kitchen window as he pulls dead morning glory vines from the trellises.  I love him differently than I did the day I married him.  In the fifteen years we have been together, I have helped bury his father, he has cleaned up my vomit, we have both been bored by stories we've heard dozens of times.  We have lost two pregnancies.  Two falls ago, in one five-week stretch, we were each separately taken to the emergency room in an ambulance and had to start thinking about what it would mean to lose the person who has witnessed so much of our lives.  Eventually, surely, one of us wil be left behind.

Andre Dubus describes the meals between married couples as not mere eating but a 'pausing in the march to perform an act together,' a sacrament that says, 'I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.'  My husband and I have eaten together maybe ten thousand times, in three states, in various rentals and then our house, at the same oak trestle table.  Watching us, you could chronicle changes--I quit vegetarianism, he learned to cook, we started to say grace--but the act remains.

Christians regularly take communion, a ritually shared meal that acknowledges the mysteries of life and death, but meal-time is especially poignant in the fall, when Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, and Celts once celebrated Samhain, and ancient Greeks told the story of Persephone disappearing into the underworld--all harvest festivals that connect sharing food with death and gratitude.  So we start with what the earth has given us.  We shape it into something else.  Perhaps there are candles.  We talk.  We have enough and are together, even though one of us will someday eat here alone.
I read this, and I'm frustrated at the romanticization of the couple and of the mealtime.  I think, here is someone who hasn't had kids needing to be taught table manners, who doesn't have people having farting contests at her dining table, who doesn't understand that for some people, dinner is just about shoving food in your mouth until you're not hungry anymore.  This nostalgia--even if it is also about loss--is not available to me.

But then I soften a little.  Because mealtimes are, in fact, sometimes sacred, and we work hard to capture those sacred moments, in case they happen to show up among all the madness.  And maybe this is not a romanticization at all, but rather a recognition that in the mundane there is also love and meaning.  "It is all I can do, and it is everything."

Part of me waits for pronouncements of the sacred, and is disappointed when there is only the mundane, which paradoxically has at its core the sacred.  I look for the high, and miss it in the low.

The mundane and the sacred are not always easy to tease apart.  Nor does my sacred always look like E's mundane.  He's thinking hamburgers while I'm thinking prayer.  He's soaking in a moment while I fret over work.  Once in a while we land on the same moment, but it doesn't happen very often.  I don't know whether to find this wearying, or also part of the way things go.

It is all we can do, and it is everything.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Way Things Go

I had a very good dream last night.  I hesitate to tell you because you'll make judgments and psychoanalyze me and determine once and for all I'm completely narcissistic and boring.  But that's what this blog is about, my narcissism, and if you haven't figured that out by now I just don't know what to tell you.

My dream, which I don't remember very well now, but which felt very real and pleasant at the time, was like some sort of beauty revue, except all of the faces in the revue were mine.  And it was like I was being a very objective reviewer of all these faces flashing by (were they pictures?  floating heads?  I don't know.  dreams are weird).  And I was able to objectively say, Yes, she looks beautiful right there, and yes, I really like how she looks, and yes, she (I) can rest now because she is (I am) finally a beautiful woman.

Quit it.  Stop analyzing me.  It was just a dream.

But the thing I remember most was just that feeling of relief.  Like:  phew.  Don't have to worry about the appearance anymore.  I have achieved beauty nirvana.  This might have to do with my first and recent trip to the dermatologist to deal with my face bumpies (which aren't milia after all, and which require this horrible process called electro-dessication to remove.  It's beyond foul and horrific, and I'm both haunted and fascinated by it).  I've been thinking about my face a lot.  But that's for another post.

Anyway, I was having that lovely dream, and then 6:30 in the morning came and ruined it.  And guess what?  6:30 in the morning is when my eyes open because my evil children and husband are all morning people and have plotted against me to ruin my natural habits, which are to sleep in and pretend the world doesn't exist for as along as humanly possible.  Actually, 6:30 is sleeping in.  Usually one mammal or another wakes at 5:30.  They're all horrible, horrible mammals, these mammals I live with.  And so 6:30 is when my eyes open.

Except at 6:30 in the morning this morning, my eyes wouldn't open.

Well, my right eye wouldn't open.

Because I had pink-eye.

Nobody else in the house has pink-eye.  Not even Milo, and he does all sorts of things with his poo nobody should do.  And I can guarantee I wash my hands more than anyone in this house.  You may have seen me today, and I might have even hugged you.  I washed first, I promise.  And the pink-eye is mostly gone now; it wasn't a bad bout.  But my point is that it was jarring, maybe even mentally scarring, to go from being very beautiful and relieved about my beauty struggles in my dream to going to the mirror where my eye was squozed shut and oozing and my hair was all stuck out and I was wrinkled and still had bumpies.

And we don't even need to talk about what happens when I'm wearing a stretched out jammified tank top with no bra, if you know what I mean.

That's all I'm saying.

Don't leave any comments saying I AM beautiful or I'll just feel as if you've totally missed the point of this post.

Which is:  where the crap did I get pinkeye?

The universe is cruel.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One Path to Reading

Nolie is starting to "read," and by that I mean that she is beginning to pick up books, show interest in words, and do her best to sound out or guess at words based on the pictures on the page.  She's doing this in much the same way and with the same books that Addie did, so I was thinking it might be a good idea to post about how we've promoted reading for the girls in our house.

Friends have asked us how we have "gotten" the girls to read.  I should be clear that we don't have any proof that their reading has much to do with us or things we've done.  We haven't invested in any phonics programs, or done a lot of things we wouldn't have done otherwise.  But I think we've probably created a good culture of reading in our house, and for what it's worth I'll write about that here.  So these are not rules or guidelines, but rather things that have worked in our family and that we've wanted to do.  There's nothing surprising here, either--I think a lot of the early childhood stuff says similar things.

Here are our strategies:

Have lots of books around.  We were lucky from really early on to have boxes and boxes of books from my childhood that my mom had saved for me in the hopes that I would someday be lucky enough to snag a man and procreate.  There were tons of classics in those boxes, including nearly a hundred of those little golden books.  So Addie had a complete library before she could even walk, and now she and Nolie share it.  As they grow out of particular books, I box them up and ship them off to my brother, who has been lucky enough to snag a woman and may procreate someday.

Go to the library every week.  In addition to inheriting all of those great books from my mom, I commit to going to the public library every week (whose existence is now in some jeopardy thanks to those douchebags on Wall Street.  Yes, I said douchebags).  I don't take the kids, hardly ever.  I just swoop in on my way to work with an old diaper bag, fill it with books randomly off the shelves from the kids' section, grab a movie or two for movie night, and check out.  It takes five minutes.  I suppose eventually the kids will want to come and pick their own stuff out.  But for now this is easy, and it works.  Addie also checks books out from her own school library.  Some get read, some don't.  But that's what's great about libraries:  it's a no-risk way to try out whatever you like.

Read every night, and other times, too.  It's a rare night that we don't all cuddle up in bed with library books or books from the girls' collection after bath and before bed.  I think we all love these moments of togetherness.  I especially love the magic of trying out a new story with the girls and seeing how they react.  Then the girls get on p.j.'s, brush teeth and hair, and head off to Nolie's big bed, where I read to them in the dark, using a reading light, from a chapter book (we've done Harry Potter, which gave some nightmares, The Littles, Lily Dragon, and are now on to Charlotte's Web, to name a few.  Whatever's around.)  Addie has always already read the book on her own first, because that's just how she is, but she LOVES being read to, and asks tons of questions about what words mean and how characters feel.  I hope they never stop wanting me to read to them.  We also read on the weekends when the girls need a cuddle, or whenever they bring a book our way.

Talk about what you read.  No magic there.  Mostly the girls ask us questions about particular books, but we also try to make connections to what we've read in our daily conversations (hey, you're dancing just like Angelina Ballerina in Angelina Visits the Tsar!).  Stuff like that.

Encourage storytelling and writing.  Nolie prefers to tell stories orally, and let me tell you, they are about as exciting as a box of bricks.  Addie loves to write and illustrate her own stories now, also boxes-of-bricks-ish.  But I think this is an important part of getting into narratives and how they work, so I suffer through.  Woe.

Let them see you read.  Eric is mostly a magazine and newspaper guy, while my head is always in a book or a Kindle.  I guess I think this shows them you value reading, but mostly I do it because I love to read and can't imagine my life without it.

A few gimmicks that work.  Okay, these aren't even gimmicks.  But two books that have really set both girls on the path to reading have been the P.D. Eastman book Go Dog Go (classic) and the little phonics books in the "Now I'm Reading" packages.  The sentences are quite simple (See Spot Run type stuff) and they map neatly on to the pictures.  So the girls can guess at the words based on the picture.  And you can offer big praise for them "reading."

And finally, my best suggestion:  Avoid teaching them how to read.  We haven't done actual phonics lessons, we don't work with them to "sound things out," we encourage guessing at words, faking our way through books, and all sorts of silliness.  They get the more serious "skills" at school.  Our main thing has been to keep reading fun.

A few disclaimers:

1.  Boys are probably different from girls, and I don't know if these strategies would work with boys.  My guess is probably not, especially after reading Sax's amazing book Girls on the Edge.  You might need to do different things with boys.

2.  I have no idea how much having a gift for reading is genetic.  Maybe a lot.  But that doesn't mean we can't think about how to foster particular behaviors in our kids.  But I'm careful not to take too much credit for Addie's great reading skills and Nolie's budding interest.

3.  If you have a baby and especially a little baby, don't worry about any of this stuff.  I don't think reading to babies does anything, unless it makes you feel good.  It might be good for them to hear your voice, I guess.  But I'm not sold on any of that stuff.  Once kids are toddlers, I think that's a great time to begin to introduce them to age-appropriate stuff.

Alright, that's my wisdom for the day.  Hope to post more this week now that E. is back in town (again).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Did I mention

that we love Milo?  We really, really do.  He's such a slobbery slob.  But we love him.

Look at the schnozzlesworth on that boy.  Goodness.  Lovey, lovey, lovey.