Friday, March 30, 2012

Innocence, Busted

At dinner Big Sis's tenth loose tooth was already sticking straight out, as if on a hinge.  "Ow...owowowowowwww," she moaned with each bite of pasta.  After dinner, she gingerly pulled her tooth out and presented it to us with a flourish.  We cheered, and she retrieved the Tooth Fairy Pillow from the cupboard.

At 9:30 PM, before I succumbed to sleep myself, I peeked into her bedroom one last time to see if my little anxious non-sleeper/believer had nodded off.  Her mouth was agape, and one arm hung limply from the side of the bed.  I kneeled beside her and reached across her warm little body to deposit the dollar bill (to spend) and fifty-cent coin (to save) into the pocket of her Fairy Pillow.  And then I climbed gratefully into bed. 

Fifteen minutes later I felt the sensation of searing eyeballs boring into mine and looked up from my reading.  She was standing there and staring at me, tears streaming down her face.

"What?" I sat up, alarmed and filled with dread. She simply shook her head silently.

I felt a glimmer of comprehension and goosebumps. Noooo..

"What is it?" I asked again, more gently.

"You're going to be mad." She bit her lip.

"No, no I won't. Come here," I murmured, and patted the bed beside me and hugged her as she sobbed.

"I'm so sorry, Mommy. I saw your blue sweatshirt, and at first I couldn't figure out if it was you or Daddy and what you were doing. And then I wanted you to know I was awake, but I didn't want you to be sad...and then...I realized it was your money."

She paused to hiccup and breathe. "I'm sad because I wanted there to be fairies in our house. Instead, it's a mom. But I'd rather have a mom than fairies in my house."

She cried some more, and I did too. 

"Do you believe in fairies?"  I asked. She shrugged.  "Because, you know, some things just can't be real to us in any other way than by our believing in them." 

"I promise I won't tell Little Sis," she offered with conviction. 

"Okay, honey.  You know, now you get to be a part of the magic, kind of like being in a special club," I whispered. 

Her eyes grew wide and she smiled. 

"Does Cousin Katie know?" she asked about our twenty-three-year-old niece. 

"I don't's not something you talk about a lot, just in case."

"Are most parents part of the magic?" 

"I think so," I nodded. 

I asked her why she thought I spent time helping her and her friends build fairy houses, and going on fairy hunts and working in the fairy garden (things I hoped desperately we'd still be able to do with enthusiasm). 

"Because you want me to believe?" she guessed.

"Because I want to believe." 

She wiped her tears, and went out to the living room to break the news to her dad before returning to bed. 

He came in soon after to console me. 

This morning he called to tell me that the first thing Big Sis did when she woke up was show her Little Sis:  "Look what the Tooth Fairy brought me!"

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blaming My Balanced Lifestyle

Last night our school district's Homework Policy Committee met to fine-tune drafts of new guidelines and responsibilities for students, staff, and families. The process was spurred by a screening of the film Race to Nowhere at our high school and subsequent dialogue in our community last year on the topic of homework (read my thoughts on homework here and here).

We spent some time last night discussing a sentence in the guidelines about balancing homework with family and extracurricular activities. Whose responsibility was it, we asked ourselves, to determine and maintain that balance? It was partially dependent, we surmised, on what a particular student and his/her family valued and prioritized.

"Not everyone can get straight As in their well-balanced life," a wise colleague noted. "Not everyone will be a starting varsity lacrosse player in their balanced life, either," someone added.

His statement got me thinking about the choices we make to balance our own lives.

Not everyone can exercise every day in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can cook healthy meals every night in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can have a super-clean house in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can look impeccable every day in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can maintain a Facebook account in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can advance their career in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can stay home and raise kids in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can make a lot of money in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can publish a novel in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can chair a committee in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can maintain a garden and compost in their well-balanced life.

Not everyone can tackle home-improvement projects in their well-balanced life.

What is non-negotiable, and what have you sacrificed, in your well-balanced life?  What do you communicate to others is important to your well-balanced life?

What do you still need to adjust to achieve a well-balanced life?

Monday, March 19, 2012

In Touch

The Piano soundtrack is playing in our bedroom; I am still dressed in work clothes but have exchanged shoes for comfy purple shearling boots. The world outside is drying from three days of soaking rain. My hands have a sheen of Babycare massage gel. Everything--the music, my boots, my hands, the lighting--feels soft. Especially my spirit.

The girls are quiet in their room, tucked limply into the same bed, head to foot. Last Sunday we went to sleep with two happy, well-adjusted little girls under our roof, so we thought. By Monday evening we had worries about our daughter's worries, manifesting in new and worrisome ways, gentlish reminders to pay attention and listen, that the world can be too much with us or with one of ours, and can carry her off in a silent, tugging, almost imperceptible tide.

When I was in sixth grade I began an inconspicuous cocooning, one wrap at a time till I was tightly wound and fairly oblivious to the normal routines around me. My metamorphosis into irrational self-regulation was subtle and gradual; at first I just cleaned my room more often without being asked. Soon I was scheduling other activities around vacuuming and window washing. I recall one afternoon riding in the backseat of the car with my mom, who was taking an out-of-town friend on a tour of our town. I quietly willed her to skip the last point of interest so we could return home before noon and I could accomplish the items on My List before...I turned into a pumpkin? I did not know. I only knew it was crucial that I meet my expectations for myself by my designated time. Or I would lose and have to start all over. I never won, of course. My father would help me gracefully forfeit.

I was at a school meeting last month and another mother pulled out an executive steno tablet like the ones I used back then to enumerate my unreasonable, unnecessary tasks. I suppose I hadn't seem a similar pad of paper since I first tucked them away in a brown paper bag high in the closet, after being called out by my dad and before being ready to get rid of them altogether. My response was unexpected and visceral.  A wave of déjà vu and frantic overwhelm enveloped me momentarily, and then I was simply fascinated by the cover of that notebook and my reaction to it.

Big Sis swigs some of my first-born genetic cocktail of guilt and responsibility and self-obsession and her traits have been mostly cute in an apple/tree-kind-of way, until we noticed that stressors were getting in the way of her being cute in an eight-year-old way. Hey, I admonished her internally, I was in middle school when I started losing it; you are way too young.

My little girl.

My anxious mind wakes me up at 2 AM and hers won't let her fall asleep.

Long division, piano performances, and the pressures of third grade social dynamics, along with my DNA, have conspired to distract her from an unfettered childhood, but we listen. And she needs to talk about it all. You are good, we remind her. You can, we affirm. We love you, we emphasize.

I seek age-old and new-age remedies. We play family games, go on family walks and hikes, read books, tell stories, snuggle. I consult knowing parents of older children with similar dispositions.  I recall when my girls were babies. Someone gave us baby massage gel in a gift basket, and after baths, I'd rub them down, folds of chubby limbs and supple skin between my fingers.

Tonight I tell them to brush their teeth and wash hands and faces. We're having massages. I turn some soothing music on and Big Sis lies face down and shirtless on our bed. Soon she is jelly and deep sighs and half-lidded acquiescence, as Little Sis begs for her turn and reassurance it doesn't hurt. They are side by side and holding hands for simultaneous neck and head rubs. I marvel at the differences in their little bodies, stroking bird-like shoulder blades and monkey-bar muscles.  Daddy peeks in from the kitchen dishes, towel in hand, grinning and winking. Long sleepy hugs of gratitude, "Can we do this everyday?" and they stumble off to bed.

Leave the music on, Mama, please? 

The news this week is full of two men who snapped (Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and non-profit visionary Jason Russell), and I reserve judgment and commentary for now, thinking only how heavy and light the world can feel, variously, and how we must look into each other's eyes, and listen, and take care, for all of our good.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Enchanted Canyon

When I was between the ages of four and eight and my father was in medical school, we lived in Connecticut in a condominium complex. While the homes were brand new in the 70s, featuring shag carpeting, bold wallpaper, and orange and olive-green appliances, the surroundings seemed untamed and enduring. We had a salamander-stocked creek trickling through the backyard shaded by willow trees, and our little neighborhood abutted a wooded hillside.

As kids we had free run of the place, riding our big wheels up and down the cul-de-sacs and winding paths between buildings, traipsing in the stream, and venturing into the woods, unsupervised and en masse, to explore, collect artifacts, and play imaginative and elaborate games. I remember half-building forts and abandoning them. I have a scar on my knee from when my brother and I doubled on his tricycle and tumbled headlong down the hill, and where the tire swing up in the woods hit that scab repeatedly. I couldn't stay away long enough to let it heal.

Those years in Connecticut comprise my most magical childhood memories. We were a tight-knit community of young families, and despite the fact that we moved away when I was merely eight years old, we remain in touch with several families and Facebook has brought me and my Hampton Park buddies back into one another's orbits.

Our daughters are now the same age my brother and I were when the woods of Hampton Park were our stomping grounds.  Living as we do now, however, in a semi-urban environment and in different times, our girls aren't as free to explore the streets of our neighborhood, largely due to our own discomfort and fears for their safety.  But we've found an enchanted canyon--a glorious escape nestled in the neighborhood--and it's become part of (what we hope is) our daughters' magical childhood. 

The canyon has become our place to go when friends come over to play.  We picnic in the canyon. When there's time after homework and before sunset, we head to the canyon.

We gravitate to the enchanted canyon when we need a breath of fresh air.  We visit the canyon to hear the sound of the wind and creaking tree boughs.  We explore the canyon with our dog:

Fairies live in the canyon. We know it because they leave their sparkly dust in trails, so we venture down there for fairy hunts:

We love the canyon for the thrill of an exhilarating swing from a tree and down the hillside:

Where was your magical childhood escape? 

Come visit, so we can share the canyon with you. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thank you, Theodore!

Friday was Dr. Seuss's birthday (he would be 108!), a special day in schools. Our daughters wore their jammies for a schoolwide Pajama Day, and it was Family Friday and Read Across America, which meant parents were outside with students reading books and talking about books and celebrating literacy.

I left work early to read to the kindergartners, who swarmed me with the books they'd brought to school, including all manner of Dr. Seuss and some Dora the Explorer and Barbie (gulp) as well. I read Green Eggs and Ham, perhaps a little too animatedly, as I lost my audience for a bit amid the hilarity (note: it's a risky business, cracking up kindergartners).

Big Sis was an early reader, a motivated and voracious consumer of books. She figured the reading thing out on her own, and off she went on her independent literary adventures. Little Sis is a different creature. It became clear as we read to her early on that she wasn't interested in chiming in or trying reading for herself. Maybe performance anxiety played a part, maybe a keen awareness that her sister was way ahead of her in this arena.  Suggestions to sound out words were often met with silence or gentle urgings: "You just read it, please, Mommy?" Last summer she warily bust into some Bob books she'd received as a gift, but we vowed to sit back and let her find her way, and allow her to continue enjoying being the audience for bedtime books. As with potty training, we felt confident she wouldn't go too long without conquering this developmental milestone.

Now more than midway through kindergarten, she wasn't reading independently. Until Friday, that is. I'm not sure how the magic happened, but she came home from school, gathered all our Dr. Seuss books into a big stack, sat down beside me, and began to read one to herself. She read the whole darned thing, and with triumph. An hour later, my friend and neighbor and colleague--a former elementary school teacher--came over, and Little Sis promptly landed in her lap to regale her with Green Eggs and Ham. We were both a little teary over the magnitude of the moment.

There's something about you, Dr. Seuss, your joyful, rhyming words, your relentless commitment to early literacy, your creativity and humor...Your day gave my daughter her big day.

Because truly? Of all the adventures in life, embarking on the journey of words and books is the most exhilarating. I am so happy for her.