Letters to Dorothy

IMG_7649I thought of you the other day when I was getting dinner ready and I saw Caroline check out her reflection in the mirrored surface of the oven.  She’ll do that now if there’s a mirror around: tilt her head a bit to the side to see the length of her ponytail.

I thought of you because I remembered one time, I must have been in high school, we were together doing your errands and I stayed in the car while you ran into the bank or the drugstore.  I sat staring at myself in the side mirror, kind of on the sly, thinking that if you came back and saw me, you might disapprove–a vain kid.  I couldn’t help it (I had flawless skin back then!).  Today a teen would fiddle with a cell phone, but then,  I sat, listening to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” shifting my gaze back and forth: from me in the mirror to the people and cars coming and going around me.

You didn’t see me or say anything about it if you did, but you were with me during those years when I wondered and worried about how I looked.

You’d have turned 79 this week.  The last I saw you, you were 66.  What a blessing that I think of you more these days as a living mom, not a dying one.  For so long after you died, I could only picture your cracking lips, your tiny body lying in a hospice cot in our dining room.  That god-awful image of you doesn’t take over as it once did.

Now when I’m watching a Villanova basketball game with my family, I see you in our old den: you’re knitting, wearing your terry-cloth blue robe.  Masterpiece Theater is on.  Or some sporting event—the Eagles, your Bears, the Phillies, Villanova.

I wonder what you would look like today.  Dad’s gone completely grey, could you ever have imagined?  Doctors did some serious work on his heart last September, but it’s still a bit broken without you.  He called yesterday to remind me that it was your birthday.  And I spoke with Danny.  We’ve all continued living since you left, but I’m not always sure how well.

If you could have just stayed to meet the girls.  We could use you now.  Your brother was in town from Chicago this weekend.  He came to see the house and your granddaughters, and as he was leaving, he hugged me and whispered, “Keep doing what you’re doing”—one of those moments that means a lot more after the moment is gone.  Dave and I are doing it fine, parenting, but I do feel like I’d be doing it a hell of a lot better with you around.

Not that you had all of the answers.

A teenage boy from the area walked out of his house the other evening—he’s been missing for three days.  The internet is awash with cyber-bullying and suicides, foul language “tweets” and stories of disgusting behavior on college campuses.

It scares me to think about my daughters in the midst of all of that.

I’m not sure what you would do with all of this information.  Your way of handling anxiety was smoking, wasn’t it, and look where that got you.

But you were always able to talk me through my own insecurities, and that was when the stakes were lower (I realize that now!)—when it was about a grade on a paper or a friend at school.  Back then, I could come home to you: there was no social media chasing me down at all hours of the day and night.  I was safe and had time to untangle myself from the teenage stuff.  You were there to straighten me out.

Caroline is “anxious.” Lexi is okay, so seemingly, but last night when I held her, tickling her a bunch, when I was paying attention fully, I caught her looking up at me.  I wonder what she was thinking: “Is this you?”  or “Where have you been?”

There are people here that love me, I know, many people.  But not like you did.  I love my daughters like you loved me.  There’s not a love like it.

Angels?  Spirits?  You, somewhere, somehow here with us?  Safety?  Contentment? Good health?  I don’t know and the deal is, I can’t know but still have to live and create a happy, hopeful place for my children.  I have to grab hold of what Dad has so much of: Faith.

We all miss you.  Even Lexi, she asks about you all of the time.  Caroline’s more quiet about it. You’d have taught Caroline Gin Rummy by now.  Lexi?  You’d be singing with her.  Mom, she sings the grocery list.  Give her a few words and she makes it a ditty.  The girls and I are still working on harmonizing.  Car rides.  “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, His Truth is Marching, Marching On!”  We lose the melody at times, but we’re getting there.

Your life.  It started 79 years ago.  It hasn’t really ended.

This will come clearer to me when the weather breaks, when the girls and I kneel in the damp, rich, dirt and weed around the popping tulips and daffodils, the bulbs we planted together in the late fall.  This will come clearer to me when all of us breathe in spring air—deep, full breaths of hope, and promise, of big-big love, of living.

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Sweet Dreams and Converse Sneakers

IMG_7318I once dated a guy who said that he liked the fact that my default mood was a positive, optimistic one, especially as compared to the go-to mood of his ex-girlfriend.  I thought immediately two things: 1) this person does not know me and 2) his ex must be charming.  Very soon after, he dumped me to marry his ex.  Though at the time this may have been hurtful, I don’t know, I was busy stumbling about in a grey, spacious world, mourning the death of my mom: I’m sure I was mainly ticked-off at his timing. A year or so later, during a name-game conversation with a mutual acquaintance, I could not come up with the guy’s last name–couldn’t remember it for the life of me.  So . . . an obvious slow-moving, unsubstantial bullet dodged.

I bring this up only because I was thinking about this “read” of me last night, at 3:30 in the morning, when happy, optimistic me was stewing about how quickly my heart was beating.  Caroline had come into the bedroom, unable to sleep, so she climbed in with us, and at 3:30 in the morning, as blood carved new vessels throughout my chest, I thought, “Okay, how am I going to do this—die in the middle of the night—without Caroline realizing it?”

What’s His Name may have gotten it wrong, so many years ago, but so do a lot of us when we establish opinions about other people.  Most figure this out eventually—that the person we see before us is more complicated than what he or she is presenting to us.  What we may look like to the outside world is certainly not wholly who we are.

Sooner versus later, I want my children to understand this.

It’s not a stunningly original realization, I know, but as I get older, and actually, as I attempt to write fiction (I’m trying!), it’s comforting to keep this in mind and kind of fun for me when I either meet new people or try to create them on a page:  we are complex characters; we hold within us contrasting qualities.  We are likeable villains, heroes with idiosyncrasies, adventurers with phobias.

The trick is to spend enough time with people, to open our eyes, to breathe a bit when we are meeting each other for the first time, worrying less about what kind of an impression we are making, and focusing more on the individual in front of us, trying to get his or her story.

When Caroline has trouble sleeping at night, her fear is that she is the only person in the world who has trouble sleeping.  It doesn’t help that her roommate, Lexi, falls asleep as easily as their dad.  We joke about the old “Clap-On-Clap-Off” commercial.  Or, if you’ve seen Rudolph as many times as I have, you’ll remember the scene when Rudolph, Hermie, and Cornelius are spending the night at the King’s Castle in the Land of the Misfit toys: Cornelius says, “Let’s get some Shut-Eye!”  He pulls the string of the bedside light, and just as the room goes black, Hermie and he are snoring their happy way to Rapid Eye Movement. It’s as easy as flipping a switch for Lexi and Dave, but not so for Caroline.  Or me.

Despite how I may appear, my go-to mood is without question Worry.  There would be other colors on my pie-chart image: slice of yellow for happy, slice of green for energized, slice of blue for relaxed, slice of red for ticked-off.  But, what color is worry?  Some sort of a faded grey brown?  Benjamin Moore might name it “Nausea”—that slice of Nausea would take up half the circle, especially of my Parenting Pie Chart.

Caroline, at age 8, at 10 pm on a Tuesday, is begging me to call 9-1-1 because she can’t sleep, she’s the only one in her entire class that doesn’t sleep at night, she’s lonely and fearful (and so exhausted) . . . observe the growing slice of Worry.  We have our Wellness Visit on Wednesday, so we’ll be chatting with a doctor.  We have a Grateful Journal—she writes in it every night.  We are trying harder to stick to a routine and get ourselves to bed at the same time, early, every night.  We are working on it.  I am not despairing; I am hopeful.  (But, I too, especially at night, can feel lost and fearful.) I know we, together, are going to figure out how to make her bed the safe, peaceful refuge it needs to be—the place of sweetest dreams.

I parent well.  I put food on the table, and generally at dinner, there’s a protein involved.  I clean clothes.  I dust when necessary.  I keep the girls on a schedule, they get to school, they play sports, they sing.

Sometimes, I impromptu-parent: a few nights ago, just before the start of the Father/Daughter Dance, we realized that Caroline did not have any dress shoes that fit her feet.  She tried her sneakers; she tried her winter boots.  She raided my closet and tried on two pairs of ballet flats. Nothing worked until she slid on my red converse sneakers and we tied them up tightly.

Caroline was skeptical: but, I could see in her eyes her mind clicking through the scenario of arriving at the dance dressed in just that way.  She stood in front of my full-length mirror, looking at the contrasting image: a beautiful white-lace dress, the one her grandmother made her for her First Communion, and a pair of bright red, too-big Chuck Taylors.

Caroline is still the “new kid” at school.  She frets about who she is as compared to everyone else. There’s a good chance that this is the reason why she frets about sleeping.

In front of that mirror, though, it took her only a minute.  Then she smiled, let out a deep breath, said, “I’m scared!” and she busted out of my room, clumped down the stairs, and went to the dance with her dad and her sister.

Taylor Swift songs were well-represented.  Limited disco, according to Dave.

They had a great time.

 

 

 

 

 


The Season of Giving and Believing

IMG_6778It’s that time of year again—lights sparkling, cookies baking, shoppers bustling.

And what I want to do right now is drop off my daughters at their elementary school, linger in the hall until recess, then clobber a few of the 8-year-olds on the playground.  I want to ride that yellow bus home and strap tight-fitting bands around the mouths of the ones telling my girls that there is no Santa Claus.  (I will, of course, do none of this.  I will sit at home and write.)

I was up until 11:30 pm last night with Caroline: classmates are telling her that her parents are the ones who put the presents under the tree.  She wants to sleep in my bed on Christmas Eve in order to prove to her classmates that I didn’t budge—she would assure them that she was right there with me all night long.  I gave her a look of surprise when she was telling me this and her tears fell: “I don’t want Santa to be mad at me, but I just want to sleep in your bed with you on Christmas Eve . . . can I Mommy?”

I understand that religion and politics make for awkward cocktail party conversation.  This isn’t about whether to write “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” on a greeting card.  This is about, if you celebrate Christmas, if Santa was once–if he has ever been–your guy, this is about letting kids be kids for as long as they possibly can.

I propose that if you have a child under the age of 10, then there is no talk of No Santa.  And if there is, there are consequences: the child actually does not receive presents on the 25th of December.  The parent does not attend any holiday functions in or around the neighborhood.  You’re 16, you get your driver’s permit; you’re 18, you vote; you’re under 10 and you full-on believe in Santa.  Required.

I don’t walk around the supermarket on any given Sunday and tell the people wearing Philadelphia Eagles jerseys: “There’s just no way they’re winning today: give it up.  Not happening.”  I don’t sit in a movie theater and scream, “Those faces in the picture frames could not possibly be talking to Harry Potter—that’s not real!”  Rather, I sit and eat my popcorn (or in the case of the Eagles, my nachos, waiting for the inevitable to happen).

It’s called “Suspension of Disbelief” coined by Samuel Coleridge, meant to put the onus on the authors to make stories just real enough to keep the reader believing, no matter how wild the tale.

So it may be a lot to take in: all of those elves making all of those toys, Santa hitting all of those homes in one night.

But the part of the story—the part about kindness, about giving, about dreaming, about anticipating—that’s real and wonderful and honestly, we need more of it in our lives.  I am the benefactor of my kids’ excitement.  I see it in their eyes and I am filled up, and I am remembering being back there myself: my mom’s alive again.  We are together as a family on Christmas morning eating farmer’s market donuts and grapefruit, exchanging gifts, completely out of our minds happy that Santa brought us the Sunshine Family house, the two-wheeler, wide wale cords.

Come on.  Let this be the season of giving and believing.  Give this to me.  Give this to my girls.  Give it to your children.  Give it to yourselves.  Be the authors and suspend the disbelief; just keep it at bay for a little while.  Surround yourselves in the believing: swim in it up to your ears or just dive right in.

 


What Would Nancy Drew Do?

IMG_5831 My daughter is to the public library as Norm is to Cheers.

The librarians call her “The Nancy Drew Girl.”  Caroline’s just polished off The Message in the Hollow Oak, volume 12 in the series.  She insists on reading in order, so every couple of days we’re back, requesting the next four volumes to be sent to our library from various county branches.  I get the email notification that the books are in, and we jump in the car.  Each trip we chat at the check-out and piece more together about the author of the series.  I thought Carolyn Keene was a singular, prolific female author, but it turns out, Carolyn Keene was a pen-name used by dozens of writers, men and women.

“Carolyn Keene” is also a Leslie, a Mildred, a James, a Nancy, a Priscilla, a Wilhelmina, and a George.  In some 1940’s soda shop, Leslie, Mildred, James, Nancy, Priscilla, Wilhelmina, or George could have been batting about plot lines surrounding an old clock or a hidden staircase, and those around him/her would never have known.

“Anonymity” is a funny concept in this modern age when what has been available to my girls since they were born is tv channels, social media, the internet.  There’s not much left to the imagination.  My 6 year old can jump on the computer and Google something as quickly as I can say, “I didn’t even know there was a Lego Friends show!”  She asks me if I’m posting on Instagram the pictures of her swimming in her first meet.  She uses the infinitive “to text.”

There’s something about the old days that makes me nostalgic for the old days.

So I like that Caroline likes the Nancy Drew books. She says she likes the mystery.  She likes how each book comes together at the end.  She’s figured out that there are patterns— she knows that someone is going to be a suspect, that Nancy finds clues along the way.  It seems the good guy always wins.  You’d think knowing that there was some sort of a pattern or formula would make the books less intriguing to Caroline, but she’s hooked.

And she’s even noticing that certain words new to her pop up again and again: “abruptly” and “confided.”  New words are becoming old hack.  (Another point for the good guys.)

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We are still trying to sell our house.

I wish Nancy were here.  Or, Carolyn Keene.  If I could just sit comfortably in a café and bang out a plot line, I’d have this book finished.  But, I haven’t a clue.  Not a single clue who’s going to make us a reasonable offer; what day it’s going to be; where my children will be in school next year.

Each day is as mysterious as the next.  I am no longer captivated by the intrigue.

People say, “It only takes one.”  They also say that it will all work out.  And what I, lover of control and ye of little patience, need to do, is . . . have faith and be patient.

It is not hard to recognize the pattern here–this is just one instant of many instances where there is no pattern, no formulaic equation to figure out.

Life is a mystery but not the good old-fashioned kind.  All there is to do is ride it, and like Caroline, maybe learn something along the way, believing that the unknown will become the known and that the good guys will win.


Gotta Getaway

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Girls’ weekend.  Ok, we’re in our 40’s, but what’s affirming about calling it “Middle-Aged Women’s Weekend”?

I just visited with some high school friends: Raquel, Kristen, and Amy.  Haven’t done so in over five years, which is understandable since we all have young-ish children, but five years since we’ve been together?  And that wasn’t even all of us.  My husband, Dave (God bless him) insisted I go. Dave isn’t great, either, about getting together with his high school or college buddies.  There’s a fraction of “home-body” in the both of us, plus he’s running his own company, plus everybody’s busy, plus we look forward to Friday movie nights with our daughters, plus, our daughters are at the age, still, where they like us: I anticipate going on more girls’ weekends when my own girls don’t want to have anything to do with me.

But I applaud the getaway gangs, both men and women, who religiously find a way to meet, once or twice a year.  It could be anywhere: antiquing in Lancaster, sidling up to a green river in Chicago, eating 8-dollar hotdogs at Fenway, skeet shooting at Man Camp on the Eastern Shore.  It could be a day and half-a-night spent in somebody’s kitchen.  Does not matter.

My friends and I picked New York, which, frankly, was not my first choice, only because I’ve had a bit of a rough winter.  The season stuck around too long and for various reasons, I have been feeling more like Jack Nicholson near the end of The Shining than Julie Andrews at the start of The Sound of Music, so the thought of 24-hours in one of the most frenetic cities in the world seemed daunting.  If there was some “recovering” to do, I thought sipping tea in New Hope might have been a better antidote.  But, the majority ruled—that, and we happened upon really good tickets to see Tony Award winning Kinky Boots.

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I’ve written about singing in a band in my post, On Seeing and Songwriting.  I was in my early 30’s at the time, and our first real “gig” was at Raquel’s baby shower.  She and I both lived in DC, but our lives were very different.  Example: one weekend, Raquel and I went to the mall together.  I bought knee-high rubber boots at EMS for my trip to watch whales off the coast of a temperate rain forest in British Columbia.  She bought a breast pump—probably not at EMS, but at the time, I didn’t know what the hell kind of a store I was in.  All I knew was that I was anxious to get out of there. (In hindsight, it was probably a Babies R Us.)

The band: I sang and played keyboards, Joey was drummer, Dave (a different Dave than eventual husband Dave) on lead guitar, Matt on bass.  We were so fresh and innovative, and unorganized, that we didn’t have a name, so a part of the fun Raquel’s guests had was providing us with suggestions.  I remember a “fan” throwing out “The Fireflies” as a name option.  Additional contributions from sarcastic friend of band bass guitarist: The Butterflies, The Puppy Dogs, The Rainbows.

We came up with “Blue Route” eventually: Joey was from Ridley and I was from Radnor, two towns in Philly connected by I-476, known to locals as the Blue Route.  I liked what the name evoked: movement, travel, going places, but also a taste of home and familiarity.  Throw in the internal rhyme effect, and you got yourself a sub-par, gender-neutral band name.

Blue Route played together for about three years.  About eight years after we’d finished, we had a band reunion and took a picture of all the Blue Route babies sitting on Joey’s front porch.  By then, the entire band had definitely gone places: Babies R Us, Home Depot, and to see various doctors for lower back issues, cholesterol checks, eye exams, etc.

Despite our best efforts, there was not and will never be a Behind the Music episode airing the nitty-gritty details. We didn’t travel quite that far.

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But, the band came up as one of many topics of discussion this past weekend in NYC.  I recalled the time when Raquel, still pregnant, was teary-eyed at the Grog and Tankard (a now defunct DC music venue), when Blue Route played our second “gig”—in an actual bar.  She was proud of me because I’d forgotten momentarily about the 2300 breakups I’d endured; I’d forgotten that any chance of happiness had forever slipped through my piano-playing fingers.  Instead, I decided to do what I liked to do, which, funnily, made me happy, and because Raquel was a good, hormonal friend, this made her cry.

My high school friends and I sat in the lobby of a shwank New York City hotel, remembering teen years and twenties.  We mentioned a few embarrassing, regrettable moments (anyone who knew any of us back then can just mentally fill in the blanks here–there’s no one right answer).  These were the moments that brought on the loudest laughter, the cleansing kind.

We talked about out children and some of the ways in which they are becoming what we never were–irish dancers, soccer players, early-instagrammers–but how we also, both comfortably and uncomfortably,  see within them glimpses of what we are.  We measured the good and the bad of some of what we recognized as parents (and of children of aging parents), and we marveled about the years we spent not seeing a thing except for what was right there in front of us, blissfully unconcerned about what came next.

We remembered high school differently, more humbly, in a way, but in other ways, too–with more confidence and compassion, caring less about what people think about us, and more about the people themselves: How is her health?  How is his marriage?  Can you imagine?  What ever happened to . . . ?

We did some sitting and talking this weekend, but, true to form, we did some drinking and eating, too: spent required time in an Irish pub, toasted our getaway with excellent margaritas at Toloache in Midtown.  We haggled in a street market, hit the trinket shops, bought tschotcke for the kids, burned insufficient calories walking and people-watching on the crammed streets.

We sat in the hotel lobby after seeing a wonderfully vibrant show about the who-cares of gender, about acceptance and color and vitality, and after a long day of living, we yawned, watched college basketball, realized the time, that there were drives ahead of us the next day, and we took the elevator up to our hotel rooms.  These were clean rooms, ones clear of beautiful, sleeping children, rooms without lacrosse sticks or size-12 t-shirts flung on the floor, snore-free rooms.  None of us slept all that well.

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The tiny trip away, for me, was big.  It was a renewed introduction to the larger world.  Yes, we are older, we have worries, we are well aware of what can potentially come next.  We’ve lost parents; we have friends who are sick and may not get better.

But for now, we are here, still facing what’s ahead even if it’s not all bunnies and rainbows.  All the more reason to do this: to get ourselves back together again and again and again.

For me, the trip away provoked unvoiced musing that we may not be who we once believed we would be as mothers, or wives, or career women; that we may not be who we once thought we would be, if, in high school, we even took the time to think about it at all.  But, for me, it was also palpably and naturally medicinal to know that five or twenty-five years later, my friends are still the same.  Actually, they are better.

Though life is inevitable (sometimes intolerable) movement, whenever and wherever we choose to come together with our friends, we ground each other solidly—right there on the spot.  And that momentary grounding just sweetens the taste of home, as we eventually move on again, making our way, enjoying our respective car-rides back, each of us comfortably alone, listening to what we want to on the radio.

I spent some time on I-476, listening to the old band’s demo.  After a few hours, I pulled into the drive.

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Tech Fast: Keeping Clarisse

IMG_1145I gave my 7th graders an assignment called “Tech Fast” to complete over the holidays.  It’s a rite of passage for the middle-schoolers: for two days, students are to live without technology of any kind—no cell phones, no computers, no music, no television. In the season of giving and receiving, news of the assignment was not received all that well, but the kids came back in January, still alive, having completed the Tech Fast, looking much like they did when they left before break.

The intent was not (despite what some of the 7th graders believed) to torture. We had just read Fahrenheit 451, a book that loudly depicts the potential hazards of overuse of and dependency on technology. I had never read it before teaching it this year; I had always believed that Bradbury wrote the novel as a reaction against McCarthyism and censorship. But Bradbury explains that his book stemmed from something less political, from something more personal. Fahrenheit isn’t about what happens when governments decide what people should or should not read. It is about what might happen when free people with access to every book imaginable, make the conscious decision not to read.

Bradbury’s main character Montag is married to Mildred, who sits all day with “seashells” in her ears, listening to her television “relatives” endlessly talk of nothing from the three walls of screens surrounding her (constant, deafening noise, chatter, lights), and all Mildred wants is for her husband to buck up and buy that fourth wall. Mildred can’t hold a conversation. Mildred can’t think a creative thought, and when she does stop long enough to think, she attempts suicide. Mildred is one of a slew of hopelessly sad depictions living in a dangerously familiar future society.

But Bradbury’s Clarisse, Montag’s neighbor, is a young girl who fully participates with the world around her. She asks questions and initiates discussions. Montag hears laughter move across the lawn from Clarisse’s house—a hearty, relaxed, natural laughter, coming from a lit home, not one darkened at night so folks can better view a screen. “Montag heard the voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.” My students were drawn to Clarisse immediately and understood it—right away—that Clarisse is the person to be. We talked about what it means, to talk. And better yet, what it means to listen.

During one lesson I brought in my iPod and played Miles Davis, my choice of jazz representative—an example of culture counter to the mainstream 1950’s society Bradbury was criticizing. Students listened to songs from Kind of Blue, and as they sat, they wrote reactions in their journals describing the “back and forth,” “weaving,” “dynamics,” even “tension,” in the music they heard. Jazz is like talking, we all decided.

And when you really talk, when you sit down to have a conversation, there is potential for pause, for volume, for conflict and tension, for resolve, for back and forth, for storytelling.

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When I was in high school, my friends knew the rule, and if they were new friends, they figured the rule out pretty quickly: Whatever you do, don’t call my house between the hours of 6 and 7 pm because you are not going to like the way you feel if my mom answers the phone. I experienced Empathy Embarrassment–guilt grated like the Parmesan on my spaghetti–as I witnessed my mom curtly informing said “friend” that he or she was calling during dinnertime. The hour was sacred at the Regan household, the time when we all–at whatever age and stage, if we were living under my mom’s roof—would sit down together, to eat . . . and to talk.

I learned to love the time and rely on the talking. Our tiny, circular kitchen table was the place and still is. Even today I can picture my parents sitting there together just before dinner, snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, retelling the moments of the day. My mom did her best advising at that kitchen table: she persevered, counselling us through teenage angst and young-adult worry. And my dad, he continues to tell the greatest stories from his spot at the table, his hands resting on the crossword or wrapped around a coffee mug.

My kids get to listen to my dad now, which is lovely to witness: Pop-Pop’s one to break into instantaneous song. He’ll narrow in to talk to one of my girls and I’ll get to see her eyes widen with delight. It honestly does not matter that I’ve heard each story countless times before. I welcome the tales, like I comfortably toss on my favorite pair of pj-pants at the end of a long day. The weaving and reweaving, the giving and taking: there’s not a lot better as far as I’m concerned.

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It’s nice that I grew up that way, as did so many others.  As parents, my husband and I are trying to prioritize reading, creativity, outside play, all that good stuff. It’s also nice that the fate of humanity is not resting on my shoulders because I was obsessive about watching The Voice last fall and so were my kids. If Blake Shelton and Adam Levine were to somehow start talking to me directly from three surrounding walls at high volume, I have to say, I would not be unhappy. My husband and I have agreed more than once that it would be fun to have beers with Blake and Adam. So there are times, I do feel a little Mildred coming on.

And there are Mildred’s out there: There are people who need to turn off the television. There are people who need to read a book. This is real.

What I find to be real as well, as I teach my 7th graders, is a genuine feeling of hope. Granted, I teach just a slice of humanity, I understand, but if I am to generalize about “kids these days,” I conclude that all is not lost. In an earlier project, I asked students to write about an object that symbolizes them in some way, and they wrote about soccer balls, pianos, skateboards—not many if any wrote about an Xbox or a Wii.

The Tech Fast, yes, it challenged them, but it did not bury them. They took to their sleds; they played board games with their siblings; they talked to their parents. They resoundingly agreed that the Fast didn’t change their lives all that much: no one picked up a new language or discovered anything astonishingly new about herself. Using less technology simply allowed the kids to do more of something else.

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It’s just that “simple” that I want to appreciate and I can when I visit my old home: I feel a little more Clarisse coming on. It’s what can happen when I surround myself with people I love. We talked: my dad, my siblings, my in-laws. We faced each other around kitchen tables, high-topped counters, and comfortable couches. We told stories, sang songs.

We went for walks, hit a museum, read books.

I use Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and so do some of my students. So too will my own kids, I’m fairly certain, unless new takes over “old” by then.  Right now I am here at this computer.  Pandora plays softly.  I need and appreciate technology.

But sitting around a childhood kitchen table reminds me that instead of looking for the next best thing on Pinterest (or whatever the gadget or Website), I also need to value what it is that I already know–what’s embedded in me, what’s been passed on.  Bring back a cookie recipe from my mother’s hand-written card, flip through an old songbook and teach my girls to harmonize to Moonlight Bay, just like my mother did, and just like her mother did before.

Tell an old story.  Talk and talk and weave and talk some more. Light up the house. Laugh until it hurts.


Falling Back

imageI’ve never been that mom–the one who whittles miniature squirrels out of sticks gathered from nature walks with her children, then uses the excess shavings in a homemade, wholesome kale and wood-chip soup.

When I had all of the time in the world to play with my daughters, I took food-coloring to pudding–once–and let the girls muck around with it for an hour or so.

It’s a blur now, what I did when I had all of that time. My kids are here living with me, still, so I must have fed them.

But I’m back to work now, and in my quiet hour of the week, when I have time to reflect, I think–if only I were home with the girls again, I would teach them Italian. We would build patio furniture from teak wood. We would solder together puzzle pieces of stained glass, arranging them into beautiful patterns.

I am not a multi-tasker. I don’t have that instinct. My husband and I joke that if I were on the show Survivor, I would die, instantly.

Even in the comfort of my own home, when I have too much to do–clean, shop for groceries, go through the piles of papers coming home in truckloads from my kids’ school, grade my own stockpile of 7th grade essays and quizzes–I tend to react by sitting down and checking my email. Then I’ll turn on Pandora and have a genuine discussion with myself about which channel to listen to. I just don’t get a lot done these days.

I get to the wine store.  I fill the pantry with on-deck coffee. And the rest is a complete crapshoot.

Before, maybe (this is just not true), I was more patient with my children. I thought by employing myself while my girls were in school all day, I would better appreciate the time that I have with them. But just this past Friday, our family movie night, when we all decided to watch the DVR’d episode of The Voice, when Lexi kept moving around, jamming her foot into my leg as we “cozied” on the couch, I found I had the patience of a lit firework. I kept saying, “Okay, Lex,” which in mom-speak means, “Can you please just stop fidgeting and distracting me from this mindless television program?”

Don’t get me wrong, teaching Lord of the Flies to a roomful of 7th graders is super-relaxing.

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We’ve fallen back an hour, so at 5 a.m. I am awake with no going back. As hard as I try to stay in bed, eyes slammed shut, my mind starts to spin together a list of what really should be done by the end of the day. So I get up.

On my way to make coffee downstairs, I peek into the room my daughters share. A trace of light from the hall reflects and reveals something heart-crushingly big: Lexi on one twin bed, miraculously both sheet and blanket cover her wholly so she is warm. And Caroline, beside her on the other twin, wrapped up comfortably, too. They face each other: Caroline’s sighs are louder because of a cold, so even with my eyes closed, I can differentiate between the two.

But I take them in together, their steady exchange of breathing, back and forth. I stand and stare at my little dream girls, listening to their early morning song.  I stay a little bit longer. I stare a bit more.


I Hear You, Ward Cleaver!

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The Lenehans caught the tail-end of a Leave it to Beaver episode this past Sunday.

There I said it.

Poor Ward Cleaver was trying to take his family on an outdoor vacation, but he was complaining about Wally and Beav’s preoccupation with comic books and drive-in movies. “Their days are organized for them,” he said to June.  “They don’t know what to do with their free time.”

Dave and I chuckled from our respective Archie Bunker armchairs, the surrounding walls covered in flowered wallpaper. We stared at the black and white set, while our kids played jacks on the front porch, sipping rootbeer floats and eating tuna noodle casserole….

wait.

60+ years later and not all that much has changed. Same big-picture issues, just the details are different.

Ward–I hear you all the way from the 21st century. I speak your language when I say, golly and gee.

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Here’s our current, 2013 situation: we have not yet signed our girls up for a swim team even though they really like to swim. Caroline’s pinkie toe is still healing from a break and the practices have already started. We’ve joined a new club, further from our house. The team meets at 8:00 a.m. every morning–momma likes a sleep-in kind of a summer.

But the biggest thing is that both my girls would rather play mermaids and see how long they can hold their breath under water than swim against someone else. That’s what they are telling me.

Caroline is seven and I admit, I have not aggressively nurtured her interests as of yet. She has “passions,” per se–she insists she wants to be a writer, but we haven’t sent her away to Starving Artist Sleep-Away Camp.

Through the years she has tried a couple of gymnastics sessions, a couple of soccer clinics, and a couple of art classes. She’s joined Girl Scouts. That’s about it. And that actually feels like a lot to me.

When I was young (golly and gee) . . I had a backyard, a bike, a neighborhood I could run through. My mom rang a dinner bell.

Later I played some sports, went to some camps, took piano lessons.

For my siblings and me, life was one big buffet table. I was able to try new things at any age. I could pick and choose. I was allowed to quit the drums in the 5th grade because Mr. Everett stuck me on bass insisting I was the only one who “could keep the beat.”

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This is not a wholly generational difference in parenting philosophy. In my day, there were driven parents raising driven kids, kids who honed in early on career paths and resume-building activities.

So I’m just going to go ahead and blame my parents now, for raising me the way they did.

I went to a liberal arts college. My mom and dad encouraged me to pursue “what I love,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I’m an English teacher, for pete’s sake.

Yes, I love books and writing. Yes, I enjoy the students.

But I make a teacher’s salary.

Why didn’t my dad and mom strongly suggest me towards a more lucrative trade? Why didn’t they strong-arm me into liking math?

I could have been a rocket scientist who monopolizes book club discussions–you can do both.

Or why didn’t they start me early–really early–paying for private lessons in a sport that would get me somewhere. Sure, I played lacrosse, but so did 78% of the state of Pennsylvania. Why not fencing?

Now that I’m a mom, this whole “follow your heart/do what you love” parenting style is, frankly, stressing me out. Especially since it doesn’t seem like this type of parenting practice is necessarily en vogue.

How does a five-year-old know what is in her heart? Mine is consistently concerned with what is in her stomach (Nutella on a graham cracker) and what will be in her hands on her birthday (the Kit American Girl doll).

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I do not blame my other peer parents–we are in this together.

I don’t know who to blame, really–all those willing to take my money under the auspices of taking care of my kids?

They’ve wanted my money since I was pregnant: prenatal yoga, preschool reservations. They’ve wanted my money since my kids could barely open their eyes: baby gyms, baby music classes. They’ve wanted my money as my girls have toddled into the big-kid world: karate, dance, heads-start art, fitness for the soul, head, and toes.

Maybe we want someone else to take care of our kids because the world is ugly and unsafe now. We are too afraid to let our kids explore neighborhoods on bikes, let them wade through creeks, fish in ponds, skateboard to the corner store.

When I was young (golly and gee) . . . I loved my tire swing. I played Running Bases and Kick the Can.

Maybe we’re worried that our kids are behind and won’t catch up. I don’t know if I’m ready to invest a lot of money and time to “nurture” interests in my children that may not be there at all, but if I don’t start helping my kids find their passions now, in ten to twelve years, they won’t get into college. Right?

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A heard someone say his son was burnt out on soccer.

His son is 8.

Why are we living in a world where kids are burnt out on anything at age 8? And why, when I heard that, was my knee-jerk reaction my kids haven’t burned out on anything yet…what is wrong with me?

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Ward, I’d like you to meet Tal Wilkenfeld. She’s 26 years old and plays a mean bass guitar. I caught her on the Palladia channel as I was watching some of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert. She was on stage at Madison Square Garden with Jeff Beck. She held her own with Sting, Buddy Guy, and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top.

She started playing guitar at the late age of 14 and seems to be doing just fine.

Golly and gee, there may be hope yet for kids these days.


Slow like a Sunday

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Sunday morning in the spring.

Light shines through the shades just opened.

I sip coffee and sift through laundry interchangeably, with ease—without distraction.

I reach my arm through the inside-out long sleeve of one of Caroline’s favorite shirts and my fingers reach, seem to go on and on, spelunking their way through a long, narrow cave. 

I remember with clarity the day she was born and here I am dancing with a size-7 tee.

Caroline slept alone at a friend’s on Friday for the first time and she was fine—without me.

Quiet Time.

To suspend time.  To pretend time might just be slow like a Sunday.

I finish the folding.  I sip more coffee and spot that chatty cardinal clicking like a clock outside my window. 

I breathe. 

The girls are mine and sleeping.

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Talk to me:  How do YOU slow things down??


No, No, No, Not Today!

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Recent conversation with Lexi follows:

                Mommy, how was your book club?

                Great!  We had a nice time.

                Who won?

                Huh?

                Who finished the book first?

For Lexi there are two options—1) she can win or 2) she cannot lose. 

Try as Caroline might, she has never been able to brush her teeth first in the morning. 

When Lexi’s “it” during I Spy Something Blue, we, the rest of her family, are mere puppets.  We’ll have guessed every possible blue item in the kitchen then she’ll toss up a game-changer—a three-pointer at the buzzer—“Actually, it’s red.”

Lexi is competitive even when there is no competition.  I was brushing her hair this morning and was darn close to completing the  low ponytail when she looked at me through the mirror, put her index finger in the air and wiggled it back and forth, “No, no, no!  Not today!”  She is Dikembe Mutombo in the Geico commercial at least eleven times a week.  “I wanted pigtails.”  More wiggly finger.  “Not in my house!”

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I am slightly competitive.  My sister-in-law will insist that I misrepresent myself with the adjective “slightly,” that I am savagely competitive, that I cannot lose gracefully in anything—Clue, cards, kickball.  This may be true, but so far . . . there’s not a ton of hard evidence (because I usually win). 

Multiple Choice:

You have hiked into the Grand Canyon and you are on your way back up—about a mile to get to the top.  You are with two other friends.  You are enjoying a leisurely walk, stopping on occasion.  As you go, you continue to follow then lead then follow a couple, two strangers who are also making their way out of the canyon.  At one point the female of the couple jokes, “Beat you to the top!” as you walk by them.  You do the following:

a) Laugh a sincere laugh as you walk by then put the passing comment from the stranger out of your head forever. 

b) Continue to enjoy your leisurely walk, stopping to take in scenic views because you are, after all, at the Grand Canyon.

c) Stride to the top with purpose.  When one of your friends wants to stop to rest and take a drink of water, somehow don’t allow that to happen.  When that same friend points out a colorful shrub, give it a glance then continue your gaze behind you, making sure that the couple is not in clear view.   Stop contributing to the conversation.  Notice that the other one of your friends is doing the same exact thing.  Finish.  Breathe a tired sigh of victory.  Let it be known that you wanted to—and did—beat the couple (the strangers you will never again see) to the top.

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We do not get to choose what qualities we give our kids.  We get who we get.  They are who they are. 

In fact, if anyone’s doing the choosing, it’s the kid herself–she’s watching us.  She’s learning from us.  She’s listening.  

The other night at the dinner table, Caroline said to Lexi: “Pick that up and put it in the trash!”  Then she turned to me and said, “I did your speech for you.”

Huh?

But what if we could choose? 

What if we could pick the qualities we’d like to pass on to our kids.  Holding cosmic tongs, we could grab from the Genetic Salad Bar.  I would have picked the freckles and the straight blonde hair for Lexi, Caroline’s spunk and her sense of humor.  Really I would have grabbed all that Caroline is, all that Lexi is . . . except for the toes-pointing-outwards.  They never did me any favors in the 50-yard dash.   

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What about your own Genetic Salad Bar?  What of you have you given your kids?