Archive for January, 2011

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The Velveteen Mama

January 29, 2011

My inaugural introduction to ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ occurred when I was an elementary school girl sitting in the attic rafters of a 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps lodge listening to a balding, one-armed monk in robes read it to a group of summer camp kids on a rainy, dreary day.  The area was illuminated by the diffuse light that shone through the dust-covered windows, and was softened by the murmurs of sound from the rain quietly drumming on the steeply pitched roof. Despite the fact that we sat perched here and there in the unfinished space like cold and clammy baby birds, it was enchanting.  It was here that Brother Michael read us the story of the Rabbit who became Real.  The setting, the tale, the narrator all combined to create one of those mystical moments that is unique to the childhood experience of hearing a book read aloud for the very first time.  Yet this story never loses its magic, and the message resonates even more strongly as I age and as I become more well worn.

Summer after summer Brother Michael traveled across the country to join our Episcopal camp community.  My memories of him over the years are filled with the powerful allegories he relayed to us about life.  He never chose a story written in a forthright manner, he instead selected parables that required us to rise up and interpret what was said.  We would sit in silence for long moments when he had finished and quietly closed the book.  We couldn’t simply look at the tale straight on, the depth of meaning wasn’t there.  It was as if you had to sneak up on it and glance out of the corner of your inner eye to understand the true significance.

This was the way of Brother Michael.  It was as if we were learning sideways.

Our children learn sideways from us as well.  Yes, they hear the straightforward messages we state (even if they roll their eyes at the time or pretend to be engrossed by the view out the window).  But they learn just as much by what we don’t say directly.  When we talk on the phone or gab at the grocery, when they are in the backseat of the car or beside us on the couch, they learn sideways.  It is when we bemoan our wrinkles, lament our grey hair, curse our increasing curves that we send sideways messages about not just our bodies, but their bodies as well.

Bodies are the natural habitats of our souls.  They allow us to experience all of the mysticism of our own stories.  They aren’t meant to be perfect, shiny, hollow shells. If we embrace our strange markings, our dingy spots, our bedraggled whiskers, our floppy ears, we come to know what the Nursery Magic Fairy and Brother Michael knew.  We are our children’s Velveteen Rabbits, and because they love us, we are Real.  What lessons will you teach sideways?  Keep me posted.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

January 25, 2011

[The author waves all HIPAA privacy rights and releases this form to be copied, pasted and printed as many times as is medically necessary.  The prescription never expires.]

Fill out with any writing implement (fancy black fountain pen, yellow-coated #2 pencil, red nail polish, Harold’s purple crayon, green sharpie used to draw on the dog, burnt umber oil pastel, etc.) available in the hour of need.

Circle all that apply:

Dear Loved One / Responsible Adult Acquaintance / or, at this point, any Sane and Compassionate Appearing Neighbor,

The time has come.  I have pushed this stroller / driven this minivan of family bliss to the edge of the sidewalk, and I can go no further.

I have neglected myself – body / spirit / mind to the point of, well…just look at me.

Please take my child / children / me away for an hour / a day / a weekend.

Please do so with great humor and no commentary.  Tell me nothing about the time you have with them / call only if they land in the E.R. / on the other hand, maybe don’t even call.

I will be napping / crying / meditating / wandering for the few short hours I will have to myself.  I will return a better parent than when I left, and with the pledge that I will endeavor not to let myself crumble to this extent next time before I realize I cannot do this job, the most difficult job on Earth, without the support and care of others around me.

Next time the sidewalk ends.

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The I in You

January 21, 2011

A child comes home with a poor grade on a math test, and the parent bemoans ‘Oh, I was never any good at math, either.’  They attend a sports match and return with a flush face and sparkle in their eye, and the parent exclaims ‘I knew you’d love it, just like I did when I was your age!’.

Our greatest hopes.  Our fervent joys.  Our darkest fears.

These play out, perhaps the most profoundly, in the small ways we stamp ourselves on the essence of our children.  It is the subconscious molding of mini-me.

We share the same nose, the same temperament, the same love for ice cream.  Whether or not our children are biologically linked to us through DNA is irrelevant, we are connected, we seek to see the similarities.  Children pattern us from the very beginning.  We smile, then they smile.  It is the call and response of the dance of generations.  And so it is a tangled web.   For who is to say what is their true innate joy, or does the mirror of our joy reflect endlessly in their experience until it becomes their own?  Wanting our kids to follow in our footsteps, thus continuing family tradition, has value.  But a straight jacket guised as tradition doesn’t nurture, it constricts.

In my family, straight jacket thy name is ‘piano’, and I was the one wrenching the straps.

I played my great-grandmother’s piano until the end of 10th grade and I have inconstantly wished over the years that I had continued.  My Daydee taught students for decades on that piano, and I wistfully imagined her sweet smile at the thought of Cole’s small fingers beginning their training on her ivory keyboard.  So I was giddy with anticipation when Cole began lessons in first grade.  To say it has been a disaster is a bit of a stretch, but it sure hasn’t been what I had envisioned.  Year one was full of frustration – Cole wanting to be instantly capable, and not ready in the least for hints from an overly helpful and hovering mother.  Year two was full of me employing both the carrot and the stick – equally ineffectually.  (I use the term ‘stick’ metaphorically, not physically).  Midway through year three we hit an impasse too great for me to overcome.  He, to put it bluntly, hated playing the piano.  And I had to see that what I had longed for- hearing music fill our house, a sense of connection to and honoring of Daydee was, in fact, drilling any love of music right out of the poor boy.

And so I embraced reality and surrendered.

I let him know I no longer needed him (because it really was my need) to take piano lessons.  He sat there, stunned, I’m sure.  Then he sat there longer.  And finally he cocked his head slightly and said ‘Well, I want to play the piano if I could only play a bit more jazz.’  And so at the next lesson Cole made his request, and now we are in the middle of year four with Cole the director of his own musical education.  I have learned to sit far away and simply be an attentive member of his audience.

When children explore new activities, new territories, new passions, they are able to expand their village, construct their own community, and create self-definition.  If we artificially narrow their exposure, we inhibit their ability to step out of our shadow.  And they can’t fully blossom in our shade.

Our children won’t love us less for being less like us.  Chances are, they will love us more.  The freedom to be loved, embraced and allowed to walk the path of their own choosing is a potent mix.  It shows how deeply we trust their capabilities and acknowledges how keenly they know their own mind.  They come from us, they are of us, and yet we must see their uniqueness, their own compelling blend of nature, nurture, experience and soul.  So, will Cole keep playing the piano?  I’m not convinced he’ll make it another season, but I am more interested in where he’ll go next.  Where will it be?  I’ll keep you posted.

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The Land of Ying

January 15, 2011

It was the Cream of Tartar that led us over the bridge into the Land of Ying.

Eleanor had decided that she wanted to ‘do the dissolving experiment again’, this time venturing into compounds more exotic than simple salt.  So we prepared our laboratory and in the pitch black of winter (roughly 7:13 in the morning) we measured, stirred, mixed and observed.  We recorded the results of our experiments in two long columns – the substances that dissolved completely, albeit more slowly in cold water than hot, and those that remained unincorporated.  Science lesson: some things dissolve, some don’t.  extension lesson:  life is binary, an either / or scenario.  And our day would have progressed just as countless other days had, unfolding in ordinary ways, except she perused the spice drawer one final time and slowly, with careful consideration, chose the cream of tartar.  In the cold water it did not dissolve, nor did it persist as a lump of powder.  It spread throughout the glass in uniform suspension, creating a lovely, cloudy, pearlescent liquid.

In that moment, our entire analysis magically transformed.  The opaque white water stood as a profound reminder to not set our expectations of life into the rigidly restrained categories of yes /no.  Suddenly before us was an invitation to explore all of the areas in life that fill the in-between.  We accepted the offer and delved into a discussion of the beauty of gray, the place between black and white.  Why, for example, does St. Nicholas (clearly a paragon of goodness) smoke a pipe?  Why, in the Little House on the Prairie books, does Ma so revile Native Americans?

The human condition is a complex and nuanced state.  Yet as parents, in an effort to extol the virtues of our own value system, we often simplify and even vilify those who hold opposing beliefs as bad people.  While a bumper sticker can proclaim a pithy sentiment, it is often a shallow, sweeping generalization that minimizes an entire group of people.  It gets a laugh, but at what cost?  We need to show our children that those we love and respect make contrasting choices.  Even more, people we don’t know, people with whom we mightily disagree, are good folks who see the world from a different perspective and live accordingly.  (please know I recognize there are those who are off the end of the continuum of culturally accepted behaviors and beliefs).  Respectful differentiation is a complex practice that is rare in a world full of sound bites and snap judgments, hatred and self-anointed halos.

Respectful differentiation means we see the subtlety and texture of people’s lives.  We acknowledge the depth of their humanity.  As a tool, it allows all of us to live our own authentic lives while engaging in civil ways with those who hold varying beliefs.  The Land of Ying is a place we can see with our third eye, a place we can reach when we stop, take a deep breath, and remember that ultimately, we are all one.  Not yin.  Not yang.  The Land of Ying.

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P*rf#ct!

January 12, 2011

The single worst word we can say to our children?  Perfect.

Okay, maybe not the single worst word, but definitely one in the top ten.  Why?  Because expectations of perfection linger in their minds well after the seemingly innocuous comment leaves our lips.

Perfect!  When what we mean is – you did something – set the table, made your bed, accomplished your long division, managed to successfully do the laundry, correctly.  Perfect sets the bar higher than any fingertips can reach.  It says we presume that which is beyond human is possible.  It burrows into our subconscious and drives us to the extremes of frenetic, unending work.  Or the inverse, in which we never try to begin with, frozen in place due to the incredible fear of failure.

Many of our children expect perfection the very first time they attempt a new task.  They crumble in despair when they flounder.  We need to help them see that a life filled with trials and errors, ups and downs is a life worth living.  The journey of learning can be filled with its own joy, regardless of the outcome.  Strive for excellence.  Acknowledge failure.  Show your child that…

…you know what? That’s enough.  It is night, and there is a beautiful snowfall happening now that will have melted by morning.  I’m going to go out, lift my face to the heavens, and appreciate the magic.  As for my fall from perfectionism, I’ll keep you posted.

[Here’s the irony: I wrote about perfectionism, posted it, and decided to revise most of it.  My recovering type A personality (I think I’ve relaxed myself down to at least an A-), still hears the irresistible, yet unattainable, call of perfectionism.]

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Three Points of Contact

January 8, 2011

When Cole was a toddler and learning to climb the ladders at park play structures, my dear friend would instruct both of our boys declaring ‘three points of contact’.  It was a brilliant way of describing the need for each child to always be touching the ladder with some combination of three of their four hands and feet before proceeding upward to the next step.

The mantra of three points of contact has stuck in my mind over the intervening years, and has expanded to cover more than physical ladders, but emotional ones as well.  Whenever I feel a disconnect happening with one of my children, I reexamine where we are on our ladder.  Are we making three points of contact?

Points of contact are ways in which we communicate and receive love.  And the dance of it all is that both the one reaching out and the one receiving the contact need to feel the connection.   Case in point, kisses.  Kissing my children on the cheek or forehead is, to me, the most natural way to express my affection for them.  They, in turn, prefer to rub it off.  Yes, for whatever twisted reason, they both abhor kisses.  So, we’ve come to a compromise.  I kiss.  They rub.  But instead of exclaiming ‘ooooohhhh gross!’ they gently whisper ‘I’m rubbing in your love now’.  We both are delighted and we both feel connected.

Hugs, however, are a different story.  They are all about the hugs.  My four year old will wrap herself around me, clinging with arms and legs like a baby chimpanzee, humming in my ear as we bond.  My nine year old, on the other hand, will literally throw himself at me, and if I am not ready, nearly knock me over.  When he first started to do this a few years ago I did not recognize it as affection, it seemed too filled with aggression.  But filled with sweet intent it was, and so his hugs continue today to be about deep touch to express connection.

Yet points of contact need not be physical.  Creating a blueberry smiley face in their pancakes.  Writing a secretly coded note and sneaking it into their lunch bag.  Playing their favorite song first thing in the morning.  Taking a slightly circuitous route home so that you can drive up their favorite steep hill in town.  There are 1000 ways to stay in touch, to be in communication, to say I love you.

Points of contact need not take place simultaneously in the space-time continuum.  Cole and I share a passion for reading, and he has his nose in a book as many hours of the day as he can.  We’ve actually had to ban books from the dining room table at mealtime.  Seriously.  Who bans books?  Anyway, we use reading as one of our points of contact.  We have a special journal and every few weeks one of us writes a message, and the other responds.  I use it as a forum for encouraging him when he is frustrated, reinforcing great decisions he has made, or apologizing (again) when I have made a mistake.  I write carefully and with intent knowing he’ll reread our entries over and over.  He uses the journal to propose project ideas or to ask for help processing something that has happened at school.  The beauty of our write and response pattern is that neither of us needs to be in the same room at the same time for any of it to take place.  It gives both of us the opportunity for quiet reflection as we reach out to one another.

When my children feel disconnected they often times will ask us to make up a story.  What they mean is:  help me decipher what happened today, I can’t quite see my way through it, and in the end please reassure me that everything will be okay.  Our tales involve a whale named Bubbles, invented by my late grandfather who began the tradition spinning yarns for my mom.  Since the birth of Eleanor we have added a companion to Bubble’s adventures, a plucky little fish named Pêche.  (Pêcher is the French verb ‘to fish’)  The allegories of Bubbles and Pêche give us an opportunity to interpret the events of the day from a safe distance, providing the kids with narratives that take them through the deep and treacherous eel-infested waters they trespassed and return them to the safe shoals of home.

As children grow, they rise higher on the ladder of life and the potential falls come from more dire circumstances.  The length of their arms and legs hold them farther from us.  The self assured attitude and sense of immortality of teenagers practically demand that they attempt to climb the ladder showing off for friends using fewer and fewer points of contact, contorting their bodies in rather death-defying manners.  It becomes harder for us to touch them, to find those points of contact.  Yet, ironically, when they ask for us the least they need us the most.  Keep reaching, keep extending, keep making those three points of contact.  As for the ongoing parables of Bubbles and Pêche, I’ll keep you posted.

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Catch and Release

January 4, 2011

Demoralized.  Really that is the best word to describe how I felt as I left the gym.  Nine months ago, having reached the ripe old age of 40, I decided it was time to finally join a gym.  I am not, or was not, a gym-type of girl.  But I did it.  And slowly over the months I started taking group fitness classes, and to my astonishment, I loved them.  Truly.  So when one of the instructors announced in December she was starting a ‘2011 boot camp’ for the first eight weeks of the New Year, I thought it would be a great new challenge.  There are six of us in our group (assuming, at this point, I don’t drop out) and, in my defense, two of the others are instructors, another two have trained one-on-one with our leader, and the other woman, I can’t really say, because I was so busy sucking air and trying not to pass out that I didn’t have much time to chit chat with her.  We are to meet once a week and do all sorts of crazy things.  The first session, the instructor said, was just the basics.  Next week it will get harder and progress from there.  I am afraid, very afraid.  After class, I sat in my car (still parked, I do not text and drive) and texted my husband ‘well, my fitness class was totally demoralizing’.  Then I sat there a moment longer (really, reaching for the steering wheel requires so much energy) and realized that once I had identified my demoralization, the feeling simply washed away.

It dawned on me that this is the Zen emotional state of childhood.  It is the naming and letting go of feelings.  Childhood is all about the now.  We adults perfect the practice of holding grudges, nurturing them under powerful grow lights in greenhouses heated by fury and self-righteousness.  Thus we ache with befuddled whiplash observing the emotional games of ping-pong kids play.  BFF.  Worst enemy.  Frienemy.  BFF.  And while they don’t have the life experience to place those hurts into perspective, they do have fluid, malleable, kind enough hearts to feel it all and then…

Let. It. Go.

When our children play this fast paced game of ping-pong with us, we feel, well, played.  It appears as if the ‘I’m sorry’ is disingenuous, the amend is calculated, and the process rushed.  They have blithely moved on and are happily engaged in the next activity and we are still gripping the ledge of parental restraint, fumes of anger, resentment and a host of other feelings pouring out of our ears.  Hours later we recall what occurred vividly because we never let it go.  Ask your child, and they usually have to pause and play back the day, searching for it, because they truly released it long ago.

We reinforce our holding on behavior with our friends – in a sense bragging of our ‘catches’.  We fish for new stories to shore up or expand our grudges ‘oooooh, you had to spend the holidays with your sister-in-law?  How did that go?’  We box people in, slap on a single, overarching label and rarely let them go.

Catch and release.  A tool we can relearn from our kids.  We can rediscover our radical forgiveness from our youth.  We can open ourselves to each and every experience we have with someone.  It may not change who they are, but it might change how we see them, allowing the full depth of their whole being into our hearts.  We can practice with our children, taking cues from their path, accepting their process and moving forward with them.  Baggage is heavy.  Let’s put it down.  So, all of that said, will the sense of demoralization have truly receded so that I actually return to ‘boot camp’ next week?  I don’t know, I’ll keep you posted.

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