Boy, 4

IMG_6771 “Mom.”

He coos from his bed, low and emphatic (as ever).

“Mooooom.”

He is stretched out long on his tummy, resting on his elbows, chin in 2 hands. He has slept at the wrong end of his top bunk so that when I enter, his face is 6 inches from mine.

“Its not true what he said. (The neighbor boy). The worwold is not actuwawy going to blow up soon.”

“Have you been worrying about that?”

“Yes.”

“You are so small to have such big worries.”

“Its not actuwawy true. What he said. About the worwold. Blowin’ up.” Chin still in hands.

“No. Its not true. The world will not blow up.”

After a thoughtful suck of his thumb and caress of his collar between his fingers, he is satisfied enough to get up. He rises with vigor.

“Yes! I knew it. Today is my birfday.”

“Tomorrow is your birthday. One more day.”

“Noooo. I’ve been waiting too long so today is my birfday today is my birfday!!!!!”

My concern that he’d been worrying about the world blowing up all night long vanishes. He makes it quite clear that withholding his birthday one. more. day (Mooooom) is much more alarming.

He tries his big brother. “Um, I think its my birfday today?”

“Why do you think that?” asks big brother.

“Because I feel bigger.”

Big brother advises him, “No, when its your birthday, you don’t get bigger until noon.”

That solves that.

Today is the day of his 4-year-old ceremony at preschool. I asked him what he would like to bring the kids.

“Potatoes.”

IMG_6711He puts on his sport coat without provocation. The day before one’s birthday is sport-coat-with-brass-buttons worthy. So is New Year’s Eve pool party, bowling, daycare, and bed. Last time he wore it all day he woke up in it too, discarding it in a pile of clothes to run around naked with his buddies (like a mini frat-boy).

But today, its worn with a cape and a crown. Because he is turning 4 (tomorrow).

Its snowy and below zero and I have an hour between work and a meeting wherein I can make it for the ceremony–its a 25 minute harrowing drive. I consider not attending when my husband says he can go instead, but I have to show up. Not because this little one, my 3rd, expects me to be there. I have to show up because he would not expect me to be there. So I absolutely must prove him wrong.

His babyhood was shorter than his brother’s, partially because he has always had to share me with them. His first year was blissful. “Three is our number,” we said. But then, in three short years, in swept grief and death, disease and crime, change and relocation, and above all, fatigue…

I won’t complain–all of these things happen to everybody–and they only hurt because our life is so good–but we got spent, and our biggest loans were taken out on him. I worry about our attachment.

Though he seems fine. He is sinew, muscles, and heart. He ran his first marathon before he was born (rather, we trained for it before I knew I was running for two).

He carries around heavy objects like coffee tables, sucks his thumb to ruin, snores like an old dog, tears our house apart daily, cracks up strangers regularly, and has friends of all ages.

IMG_6824

Worker-guy birthday party!

He is a “worker guy.” Two days later, he unwraps his birthday present and exclaims, “A box of wood–just what I always wanted!!”

He wakes up most days in the costume he wore to bed, explaining what type of robot he will be for the day. “I-am-a-robot-cat-meow-meow” is the most common.

His preschool teacher has said, “He is so much fun. And he can be so stubborn.”

“Resilient,” I say. But I know.

He’s a softy too. He makes me read aloud his birthday card from Grandma three times, after which he says, “read the xoxox part again–that’s my favorite.” But he might take you out at the knees or head-butt your chin with his “hugs.”

He introduced an inventive game to me recently by saying, “you be the nail and I’ll be the hammer.” Thwop. Game over.

Perhaps my favorite-est ever was the day he came inside from playing with his brothers, looking alarmingly stiff and unable to turn his head. “Mom–I am taped to stick!”

3 over 3 now, and somehow I never go to reading this.

Oops–never got to this.

He skipped tantrums at 2 and 3. Too busy. He’s making up for it now. He also does things for which we cannot prepare. For example, had we seen the potential to stack a high chair on the bench over the hardwood floor and then stand in it–we would have told him that was against household rules. I find spatulas in the oven, computer cords in the washer, dinner plates in the bathtub, winter boots in my bed. Since he started walking at 11 months, we could see he didn’t plan to sit much, ever again. Anyone who knows him, and much to his Grandmothers’ and babysitters’ chagrin, he sports a particularly unique blend of super clumsy and incredibly coordinated.

He ranges so widely and so creatively, I feel like he thinks no one is watching him. And I worry its because, for a significant while, we were not watching him closely enough. Some of his behaviors seem to be a product of early freedoms one is afforded when, for instance, their mom and dad are distracted.

So we are reattaching, and its fun. Our theory is likely entrenched in guilt-based, over-achieving martyrdom with a bit of nostalgia. He may actually just be a free spirit, but it can’t hurt. We cuddle more. We limit more. We talk more. His response? Sudden and impulsive mid-play “I love you’s,” and wild leaps from chairs into monkey-lock hugs: art, stories, hand-holding.

So why not?

I make it to the ceremony. This preschool is so beautiful, warm and creative in its approach, I think of it as a gift we have given our children. When I arrive, he is in his cape and crown (and suit), lighting 4 candles. The teacher is telling the story of when he came to be and the angels picked a family for him. Then his family picked a name for him, and the great Spirit chose a birthday for him. And suddenly, there he was, 8 pounds and 11 ounces of love in his parents’ arms.

He blows out the candles and unwraps his teacher’s handmade gift–a felted wool box with a seashell and a piece of pyrite inside. She explains that its time for him to open up and show the world what’s special about him on the inside.

If he could just do that without the spatula and the dinner plates, that would be great. This time, we will be watching.

IMG_6764Dear boy,

At age 4, you are independent. We wonder if a little less independence might suit you better. Speaking of the suit, you are well-groomed (aside from the yogurt smudges and permanent lip chapping where you suck your thumb). You have always had an uncanny willingness to share. You brought your teacher a present on your birthday. You are bright, creative and industrious. I think you would make a great farmer (preferably organic). You are magnetic. You bring people toward you and keep them near with your fun, sparkle and love. Just watch your elbows–you are stronger than you know. I would like you to play and move and grow and invent. I wish you boredom because I can’t wait to see what you will make of it. I wish you patience for practice because I see you drawn to music. I wish you confidence to share your sense of humor. “Potatoes.” Honestly. I wish you friends as good as I am sure you will be. I wish you adventures because you were clearly in every possible way made for them. Safety first. Please, always ask me to “pickle you up,” and I always will. Happy birthday. I accidentally typed buttday. You would love that. Oh, your laugh. It is music to my ears.

Love, Mom

 

 

 

 

 

Season of believing…

santaphotoI am not “ready” for Christmas. On my commute this week, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at Christmas Day with no gifts. My feet lifted off the ground and for a moment I was suspended above the great Mississippi River bluffs. Woozily, my senses grabbed hold of my boots just in time and I settled back into planning who will get what.

My kids, well beyond the years when many give up the dream, wholeheartedly believe in Santa Claus. So we welcome him into our home for the entire month of December.

And that man has some serious baggage.

My husband and I both have great childhood memories of cutting out pictures of toys from the JCPenny catalogue and dropping thick, pasty letters into the red mailbox at the mall. My brother and I would endure sitting on Santa’s “helper’s” lap to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, despite his cigarette breath.

Our kids are much more choosy about lapping men in red suits. They have a list of Santas they suspect are “real,” including the one we saw hopping on the Amtrak at the historic train station in Red Wing, the one that helped us strap our Christmas tree to our car, or the guy with the white beard walking down our street in suspenders THE DAY of the first snow – they were suspiciously magical beings. The ones that invite them to their laps – nope/never/no way/utterly destructive to the reputation of Mr. AwesomeClaus. I am glad they are choosy.IMG_9038

As new parents, we started simply – a tree, cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and one present. By two kids, we wrote letters to the North Pole and allowed one request of Santa. By three kids, we had engaged the myth he was watching them for good behavior. And suddenly this year, all our halls are decked, the elf makes daily appearances, an advent calendar marks the days, the Polar Express is real (and costs $80) and St. Nick has to find a way to live up to the puppy he left in my kid’s boot last year.

And there is no going back.

My youngest son, being new (in his limited memory) to advent calendars, found the thing stuffed with exceptionally difficult to find itty-bitty toys and candies and little tiny notes from mom and dad, and must have thought this was the craziest, coolest THING upon which he had ever stumbled. Being the 3rd, I realized in retrospect that he never got the one-per-day and oooooaaaaaahhh this is such a cool thing it should be respected talk (as if that would have helped—whom am I kidding?) Poor thing gave into his urges, ate every bit of candy, lost, destroyed or claimed every toy, and for some reason (omg) sunk every little note in his cup of milk. It’s done for the season. His big brothers were so horrified they weren’t even mad I basemented it instead of refilling it. Its like we decided collectively we couldn’t go through that again.

Now let’s talk about the Elf. My kids received Elf on the Shelf as a gift. I think the gifters might even find it funny how undone we’ve been by him. If you don’t know this homely creature’s story, the rules are 1) he moves DAILY, 2) he must never be touched (his magical powers at stake) and 3) he sends messages to Santa about the kids in the house (I lobbied for husbands too but the husband didn’t buy it). You might think one could bend the rules, but no, he comes with a storybook, which amounts to a contract for all parents who have naively welcomed elves into their homes.

This is a lot of work for parents: manic morning elfscapades, midnight fights over elf-relocation, the transcription of children’s letters-of-complaint to Santa (like when he is “lazy” and does not move). I fully planned to ditch the elf this year. Then mom upon mom recounted their kids’ sweet morning discoveries, my children started asking about Marlog (our elf), and I caved. His first morning was magical – there he appeared, riding the Swedish reindeer decoration. By morning two, I had forgotten, the kids were disappointed, and I stepped into my familiar role of writing new rules (excuses) for Marlog’s poor behavior. “Oh he only moves after all the kids in the house have seen him and since your brother had a sleepover last night, he’s stuck there awhile.”

Hook. Line. Sinker. My neighbor’s kid had his doubts about the gluey-eared “elf” who gave him a legit PRESENT at a Christmas party. But the Elf on the Shelf seems to beg no uncertainty, which is even wilder if you’ve seen the thing.

Melfphotoarlog has skinny legs, a cherubic face, a jester’s collar and no feet. He had hands but the puppy from St. Nick chewed them off. One evening last year we were eating dinner and our “cute” elf was catapulted to the salad from his spot in the light fixture above. I went to pick him up and my oldest yelled, “No – you can’t touch him – he will lose his magic!” My kindergartner wailed, “Marlog is dead!” Time stood still long enough for me to imagine the merits of this option: an elf funeral could put an end to this nonsense.

But I couldn’t do it. I picked up Marlog and put him in the crèche scene with the angels and the wise men. My children bemoaned me until I explained, “Spending a little time here will bring back any special powers I stole by touching him.”

Speaking of the manger, this season I’ve heard some colorful commentary on this old story. For instance, Nadia Boltz Weber, an amazing minister, author and as it applies, veteran of childbirth, wondered if the little drummer boy was really a “gift” to Mary? Did Mary honestly give a dam that the 9-year-old banging his drum throughout her barnyard labor with a bunch of strange men and stock animals was “playing his best for her?”

And one of our favorite local musicians, John Munson, recently reflected on Joseph. Imagine the love and trust it took for Joseph to look at his beautiful, young, virgin wife and say, “An angel said, WHA?” and believe her.

Christmas is entirely about believing. First Jesus, angels on high, then Santa, also St. Nick, the Christmas Spider, the Polar Express, Rudolf, the peppermint pig, talking snowmen and now, ubiquitously, Elves on Shelves. Unfortunately, children’s wonderment is particularly marketable. We’ve put incredible pressure on families to buy dreams-come-true for their kids. But Amazon and Walmart and Macy’s don’t make decisions for us. They offer stuff (too much stuff). We are still in charge of the limits and the magic.

The stuff in Santa’s baggage can’t hold a candle to the magic–we can’t get enough of it! Take it from someone who sustains elfscapading against her better judgment, who once stayed up until 4am to guard a discontinued electric train on Ebay auction, and who rigged a system for placing Christmas presents under the tree invisibly in order to evade her son’s video surveillance system. I know someday Santa’s fairytale will crumble and we are bound for a little disappointment. But so far, there seems to be very little harm, and a good deal of humor, in believing.

A one-marshmallow world

“Stanford researchers see trouble ahead for kindergarten students with low self-regulation unless parents and teachers help.”

Summary: The basis of this article is new research surrounding the Stanford marshmallow experiment. As Sanders writes, “young children were offered one small marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in 15 minutes if they could resist eating the first one. Children with low self-regulation ate the first marshmallow. In follow-up studies these youngsters tended to grow up to be teenagers with lower SAT scores, higher body mass indexes and higher rates of drug abuse.”

Sanders goes on to explain that this study demonstrated first grade academic success is partially dependent upon “high self-regulation,” and “a low-conflict relationship between student and teacher.” The good news is that research from the University of California, San Francisco (http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/Portilla-ObradovicANGxp1.pdf) shows that supportive classroom management and parent engagement can improve outcomes for kids who enter kindergarten with low self-regulation.

photo-4The scientist in me had to look deeply into the validity of the marshmallow experiment and this follow up, but it is indisputable: the study design was decent. “Low regulation” was determined in the secondary study by teacher and parent questionnaires rather than an oversimplified marshmallow test. I appreciate this. I also appreciate the findings: good parenting and good teaching can help kids who are not as emotionally ready for kindergarten to catch up before first grade. My discomfort doesn’t even lie with the fact that a good deal of money and time was spent proving what most of us assume logical. In fact, there is value in identifying factors that lead to school failure. But herein lies the rub.

This study rials me up for the same reason it bothers me that kindergarten no longer prepares kids for grade school. Kindergarten is the new first grade; ask any kindergarten teacher who has been in the business for 30 years. We now demand things of kindergartners that are not necessarily developmentally appropriate for all 5 and 6 years olds. For those who are not “ready,” we often point to their lack of pre-schooling or parenting instead of their lack of time out of the womb. I believe play serves a purpose longer than we give it run in the U.S., whether kids are at home or in daycare. I think creativity and art and time to think without letters and numbers and the constraints of a classroom environment, with abundant recess and songs and perhaps some digging, painting and moving, fosters better thinkers, learners, workers and citizens for today’s world. In fact, research also supports playtime. I wish for children that kindergarten still focused on organizing play and regulating behavior in preparation for first grade.

I think some kindergartners should want to snatch marshmallows and shouldn’t give a crap about the future. I think little ones should be praised for acting on their impulses and being in the present moment. Who decided wanting more is smarter? Perhaps one of many roots of the problem in education today is what is haled as THE SOLUTION in this study. Rather than kindergarten teachers receiving training to identify low self-regulation for targeted nurturing, I wish kindergarten teachers were trained to value low-self regulation because it is developmentally appropriate, embracing kids acting like kids and their wonderful present-mindedness and impulsivity.

What kind of culture shift would we create if kindergarten teachers felt able to be genuinely DELIGHTED by disregulation? I am not suggesting we allow children to act like monsters. My own children have manners they sometimes exercise and we manage their mood swings and choices. I am suggesting that if schools went one step further and actually accepted low self-regulation as developmentally appropriate, rather than encouraging “low” students to be more like the highly self-regulated kids currently destined to achieve, perhaps things would improve for everyone. Perhaps education equity would begin. Perhaps the achievement gap would start to close. Not because we caught them up, but because we saw the value in their childishness.

I am suggesting that perhaps the reason the less self-regulated children in kindergarten end up with lower SAT scores, higher body mass indexes and higher rates of drug abuse is actually because, from the moment they entered a school, the pressure to have children succeed on tests demonstrated to them that they were less-regulated, and therefore less prepared, and therefore less able, and therefore less destined to succeed than the kids who could wait for two marshmallows. I am suggesting there might be something intrinsically valuable about the kids who took one marshmallow: perhaps those kids just wanted one damn marshmallow from the beginning. But as soon as they reached for it, someone judged them. Perhaps the low SAT-scoring kids, and the fat kids, and the addicts were actually destined to be the leaders, and the innovators, and the feelers, until they were asked to be different, implying, that they weren’t enough from the beginning.

As a teacher, a camp counselor, an outward bound leader, a health educator and having spent most of my career with so-called “at risk” kids, I want to live in the world that THEY create. What I hope for my children and for the future of my world is that teachers across the country feel free to turn to the one-marchmallow kids and say, “you have just as much potential.” And NOT “you have as much potential as those other kids if you change, and soon.” But, “you have just as much potential, perhaps more, just as you are. Look over here kids, we have a leader among us.”

Butter Alone

I am sleep deprived. Three kids with coughs are taking turns in steamy showers, propped up on pillows. Cool air for the croupy one, a nebulizer for the wheezy one and snuggling for the dramatic one.

I am somewhat happy to comply, so long it’s shared with a domesticated husband and a cooperative dog (she keeps the foot of the bed warm when I get up to help). I am accustomed to working nights in this job.

My trouble isn’t the kids. It’s mom’s heart and dad’s memory that make sleep elude me once I am awake. Heart and memory and relocation, pain and loss and depression. The vultures flying around what they have left—the Vet benefits that I can only hope come through before the death certificate. The elder care attorney, the total lack of Alzheimer’s care, the heart valve clinical trial consent form. The appointments. The medications. The forms. The health care system that doesn’t seem to understand age or disability, of all things!

Art by Helen Boggess

Art by Helen Boggess

My brain colluded with my uterus the minute I was pregnant and still marches onward full of love, most days (and nights). But I didn’t see my healthy, strong youthful parents’ infirmity coming out of left field until it struck me sideways. They were still my best babysitters up until the day of my mom’s stroke. Though she recovered, her heart and her husband will not.

In the morning I set to writing over a bowl of soup and a delicious roll at the coffee shop that’s quieter than my house. I peel gold foil from a pad of butter and stop before spreading it. “Wait,” I think. Dad we are trying to fatten up: he eats two. Mom can’t take the cholesterol; she gets ½ a pad. Child one is vegetarian; does not apply. Child three hates butter; DO NOT APPLY TO ROLL WITHOUT INSANE CONSEQUENCES. But I may eat one pad of butter.

I spread it on the bread, dip it in the soup, and finish every yummy bit.

Then I remember. It wasn’t the butter at all. Today I was going to eliminate carbs.

Such a fine line

IMG_0008_6

Today I was late to a meeting because I got my pen tangled in my hair.

I was reminded of the time my son went walleye fishing with an earthworm in my hair.

My family and I once got snowed into a friend’s cabin the same night the pipes burst and water poured through the ceiling. Hours later, my husband admitted he could neither confirm nor deny the presence of raw sewage in my hair.

I often find food and snot of unknown sources in my hair.

We recently established a rule that when I am reading to my sons, no one is allowed to wrap their fingers or toes in my hair.

But today, I was alone. Shampooed. I put my hair in a bun and stuck my pen through it to hold it in place while I drove. I had it under control.

Ready for the world–until I attempted to step into it. Anxious, I pulled the pen too hard, too quickly, and unraveled my morning instead of my bun. Twelve precious minutes–the difference between timely and tardy–lost.

Such a fine line persists between control and chaos.

This is surfing…

IMG_3573I keep an embroidered bracelet I bought in Costa Rica on my nightstand. It’s a token of our recent 11-day family adventure, infused with the balm of sandy kids, surf lessons and seaside meals. This trip we did not just take the show on the road. Costa Rica felt like a true vacation; one that reminded me of who I was before 2013. I sniff it every morning when I wake up to remind me of being there.

Arriving in Costa Rica was our own personal miracle. The week before our trip my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and spiraled into depression so deep we hospitalized him. My brother flew in from L.A. and insisted we go. The night before leaving, two out of three children threw up. We went anyway. We were dropped off at the airport with 4, not 5 passports; a near miss. Within hours of arriving in Tamarindo we were informed that the Pacific coast was being evacuated for a tsunami. Hardened against the other shoe dropping, we waited it out in our bungalow.

2013 had rolled that way. We lost my Uncle, we lost our dog, my mom had a stroke, my son broke a vertebra, we moved my mom and dad out of their thirty-five year home after both endured multiple hospitalizations. I hadn’t realized how maladapted to stress we’d become until we spent some time at peace.

IMG_4580The genesis of the trip was our inner knowing that we needed to refocus our attention on our kids, revisit the baseline of our stress levels and release our fears of what wicked was to come next. In January, on our way home from cross-country skiing with the boys, my husband suggested a cheap and easy vacation in spring. In my post-ski glow, I looked at my surfer-husband and wondered what it would feel like to have left behind a skill that lights me up, for decades? Landlocked, he’s only dabbled in an hour’s surf here or there every few years. We had been talking about “surf camp” since our 9-year-old was travel-worthy. It was time to go big. I offered Jason the vacation reigns and he gleefully, skillfully planned a family surf trip to Costa Rica (read: he picked out a beach and bought plane tickets). Once we arrived, it took me about a week to stop asking what we were going to do next and had he really not planned ANYTHING other than the flight. After about a week of detox from our harried life at home, I could see the ABSOLUTE WISDOM to his plan; we were there to catch a good wave. Nothing else.

Continue reading

The Stinson 100 Yard Dash

IMG_5212We are not creatures of habit. Addiction is not our black dog. I have tried registration, dedication, resolution. I have calendars, reminders, i-minders, apps. But our patterns get interrupted; our plans change. I have been meaning to go to Zumba at the Y on Tuesdays for two years. I can get  my kids to school everyday, but we will play hooky on the nicest blue bird day in winter and the first day we can show our skin in spring. We are responsible. We take care of our things and our people and no one goes hungry. We keep commitments. But I will never succeed at a weekly exercise plan. I will never take vitamins on a daily regimen. I am not wired for consistency. Its time to stop naming my lack of patterns my big failure and succeed at being me.

Yet I am a tradition junky. I must exist on a seasonal calendar; less axis and more orbit. My husband once laid out coconuts in a solar system pattern for me on a beach to help me understand planetary science, which evades me. I get the ellipsis around the sun. The spinning at the same time makes my brain hurt. It won’t sink in. It conquers me. I have to watch this once a year www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV4nk9or9SE for review. I will take my trip around the sun; but I am in total denial of rotation on a axis. We take the train to Red Wing to see Santa every Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve has been at mom and dad’s house for 25 years. President’s Day we spend with friends in the woods. In August, we camp. Etc. Etc. Etc. I am a creature of exclusively and obsessively yearly habits. But “bedtime” for instance, is an ongoing struggle.

I have wanted this to be different my whole life; to get up at 6, meditate for 15, jog for 30, shower, drink a glass of water, eat a piece of fruit to start the day “right” and greet my children with a smile at 7-to-the-second a.m. I think it was twenty years ago now I set the still unmet goal of doing sit ups every morning. I have also always wanted one of the jobs depicted in the “occupation cards” hung on grade school walls where each professional dons a different uniform; doctor, teacher, engineer. I wanted to be an X, do my Y and come home to my Z. But, it has not worked for me. I don’t do “regular” and I have judged myself for it far too long.

When I was 25 I called my mom, upset, because I was done with my teaching internship and didn’t know what was next. More teaching? But then how do I save the rain forest? And what if I want to be a Judge someday? What about writing? Or nursing? She said, “Sometimes I think you’d be happier if you chose one thing and stuck with it, no matter what it is.” I filled a journal and called a week later with my plan. “Mom; you were right. I am going to take six months and just: rock climb.” Not what she had in mind. I made it through Moab, Mount Lemon and Joshua Tree; six weeks. I couldn’t even commit to being a dirt bag.

After that escapade and a subsequent volunteer-year across South America, I moved to Montana with a backpack of earthly belongings and taught for two years (in a row!) I left Montana five years later with a truck, trailer, dog, husband and acceptance papers for a Master’s program in Maternal and Child Health. I worked as a clinical health educator for four years; then I had a baby and went part-time, I had another baby and became a consultant, I had third baby and quit. The slope was slippery from the start. Now I have been at home for five years. I have vacillated from totally committed and blissful, to rabid job-seeking for a ticket out of hell. When I left my career I felt at the top of my game; respected, on my way up. I had no idea how difficult it would be to weasel my way back into the working world. I now have a part-time job that I love, hired by parents that saw the value in my previous work and my time spent at home. And I write, because it keeps my brain buoyed above water-level in the vast and unknown sea of parenting.

Part-time work, writing, taking care of aging parents, volunteering on boards and being there for my kids have kept me breathlessly busy. Yet, I have trouble valuing myself and what I am offering the world. “Writing/working/advocating Mom” is not on occupation cards throughout grade schools. I have not had a supervisor saying, “you are succeeding, you are doing this ‘right,’ you are awesome.” A big, discouraging part of me still thinks I should be doing X, Y and Z.

Today, however, a neighbor on my street reminded me of who I am.

Every day, he says, he stands with his coffee in his doorway at 8am and spectates the “Stinson 100 Yard Dash.” The school bus arrives a straight-shot block from our house at 8:07. Rare days we all saunter together with the puppy and coffee mugs, but most days we race with various tactics intended to promote speed. Apparently the three-boys-to-one parent days are the most fun to watch. Everyday we wear different jackets and hats and mittens, like we can’t quite commit to our team colors. Sometimes the little one is just wrapped in a blanket. Jason and I range from p.j.’s to suitable workplace attire. Collectively, we wipe out on ice, we get wrapped in the leash, we bark various orders; we drop, run, skip, spit, laugh, cry, bleed, but we arrive. Apparently we also totally entertain our neighbors.

This is us. This is me. I don’t want to fight it anymore. The Stinson 100 Yard Dash is as close as we get to gently spinning on the axis. It’s no wonder parenting and writing are the jobs I’ve wanted to keep the longest. I love change; I enjoy managing chaos. I love writing because I get to create something new everyday. I like my job because I am helping to ensure that change happens. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not satisfied. I want to publish more and work more and exercise more and spend more time with my kids–but I have to do it my own way, and it will not likely ever involved sit-ups and a piece of fruit every morning. As I evolve from my role as a pro mom into whatever is next, I want a career like parenting that puts new expectations on me everyday. No more X,Y, Z. I am better in orbit.

My Best Ideas of 2013

image

Summer-Bag; in the back of the van and always ready for the park, beach or pool. Ingredients: towels, suits, swim shirts, sunscreen, sun hats, buckets and shovels, goggles and a bottle of saline solution. Why saline? Best ever solution to sand-in-the-eye!

image

Caboose Game; marbles are moved from the red jar to the caboose as the kids’ good deeds accumulate. Ready for school without nagging? Share something with your brother? Say kind words to someone who needs them? I reward both good behavior and positive character. When the caboose is filled, they get a train-related outing of their choice.  Our last one was a trip to Jackson Street Roundhouse Museum.  ChooChoo!

IMG_1290

One-on-one time SCHEDULED with each child monthly.

photo-1

Art therapy; my kids and I made these the day our Gebo passed away. We keep his tags in the clay cup.

image

Character stones; one might be asked to carry this around in his pocket after he, for instance, screams “I HATE YOU” upon being denied a popsicle.  The best part is you can make new stones as the needs arise!

image

Character stones; one might be asked to carry this around in his pocket for awhile after after he, for instance, does not put his shoes on after being asked FOUR TIMES!

IMG_0074_3

Swimming in waterfalls is just a deeply good idea.

GetInline-6

B is for Beethoven. I made a baby books for newly arrived friends and family members with snapshots of loved ones taken at baby showers.

IMG_9339

K is for kiss!

Best term: Blizzard Brain This is my term to describe the mental affects of surviving the Polar Vortex: the fog rendered by rescheduling due to snow days (no matter how we love them), the adrenaline pumped by white-knuckle driving (it rattles the best of us), the head spinning attempts to keep body parts warm, and the net-effect of months spent largely indoors.

Best case: The Missing Goldfish  We lost our goldfish. I interrogated the children. I pried open the pump and the filter. The fish has fled the household. The children interrogated our babysitters. They searched water glasses, flower vases and floors. The case was stamped “unsolved.”  The investigators are taking new cases.

IMG_1158

Holiday cards bring us peace. They also bring us a conundrum. What do we do with all these adorable pictures come Spring?  We cut them up and made a poster we enjoyed all year round.

IMG_3045

Embrace the catastrophe!  Yes–that is a baby pool sandbox in our basement.  50 days below zero, people.  50!

good idea

It started innocently, and grew…

IMG_0021

DIY colorful race for outdoor birthday party inspired by the “Color Run” and India’s Holi Festival. We used cheese powder (not kidding), turmeric, and powdered blue and green food dyes mixed with rice floor. Biodegradable and fantastically silly. Yes; it stains by design.

IMG_2845

We asked our neighbor who owns a landscaping and plowing company to show our youngest his trucks for his 3rd birthday. He outdid our request by taking him plowing. DREAM COME TRUE.

IMG_3346

Our Thanksgiving centerpiece was made by our tableful of guests. When they arrived, an object of nature was on their plate. Each person said what they were thankful for and placed it in the centerpiece. It gave us the opportunity to hear from everyone in a year that we all needed each other.

Best capture: calendar quotes I keep my kids’ quotes on my calendar and write them down in a book every few months.  Easy.

Best recovery: bowling night  In one solitary weekend, I neglected to register for my yearly 1/2 marathon, I forgot to go to a class I’d been looking forward to for months, I went to a voice lesson and my teacher wasn’t there, I went to a meeting at the wrong time, I toured 3 senior homes that had no openings for my parents, I dragged my kids to 2 stores for mittens that didn’t sell mittens, and I took them for consolatory cocoa at a coffee shop that was closed. I just kept walking down the street to the next door and it turned out to be the magical gateway to an awesome evening; a bowling alley. Now when anyone complains of having a bad day, the kids yell, “let’s bowl!”

DIY Christmas balls; purchase wool, felted wool balls, and plastic ornament from Michaels.  Include items from nature.  Lovely grandparent gifts.

DIY Christmas balls; purchase wool, felted wool balls, and plastic ornament from Michaels. Include items from nature. Lovely grandparent gifts.

IMG_0009

DIY lego kits

Homemade ice cream cakes; freeze for 1/2 hour between each layer.  Cookie and butter crust crunch crust, fudge sauce, ice cream slightly melted poured on top, frost with whipped cream and cocoa powder (frosting won't stick to ice cream), and then decorate on top of the frozen whipped cream.  Voila!

Homemade ice cream cakes; freeze for 1/2 hour between each layer. Cookie and butter crust crunch crust, fudge sauce, ice cream slightly melted poured on top, frost with whipped cream and cocoa powder (frosting won’t stick to ice cream), and then decorate on top of the frozen whipped cream. Voila!

My friends call me Ellen…

maryshadowI cried off and on for 24 hours after I saw Saving Mr. Banks; a mix of happy and sad tears.  From the movie, Pamela Lyndon Travers appeared to rectify the ugliest parts of her childhood by crafting Mary Poppins and releasing her to Walt Disney. We saw her catharsis at the premiere. She wept. She smiled. She changed.

Its not a true story. She loathed the film; that’s why she cried. In 1995 she released the rights to Broadway only after they conceded to portray the darker stories written in her books. The darker stories were about her former self, Helen Lyndon Goff, who she left behind in Australia when she became an author and actress named P.L. Travers in her 20’s. In her books, a magical governess saves Mr. and Mrs. Banks  from their misery. Though you won’t find this in the film nor book, the truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Travers Goff (Pamela’s parents) needed saving from stress, addiction, suicide, and influenza.

In her story the children did not need to be saved. They were fine. Always fine. Tough. Impermeable. The children did not start out that way. They were fun-loving and enjoyed the story-telling and indulgent illusions of their father. But after his tragic death by alcoholism and influenza and their humiliated mother’s suicide attempt, they no longer relaxed into fantasies like frivolous love, dancing penguins or spun stories. Mary Poppin’s role was to prepare them for a harsh world where they would always be safe, sober and under control.

Ellen is my very own Pamela Travers; as tightly wound as Pam’s pin curls. Ellen has her other defenses too; self-deprication, perfectionism, fear, care-taking–all drives to distract from the toughest parts of my childhood. Ellen is a joke among my friends, as she should be. Our defenses aren’t who we are and I am all for poking fun at them, needling them, forcing them to dance with animated penguins. When my friends call me “Ellen,” its a reminder that the better parts of me deserve their fair shine. It doesn’t really matter they don’t know where Ellen came from; they know the real me. Ellen is at war with humor, softness, emotionality, spontaneity and lightness. Like Pamela, she wants to go to the bar and have friends. But if her guard goes down, the pain surfaces, and Pamela mustn’t allow that. I wish not to become Ellen the way Helen Lyndon transformed herself into Pamela. She left behind the little girl behind who laid eggs on the steps and road horses like the wind.

But that also successfully stamped out Mr. Banks, the alcoholic, and Mrs. Banks, his distraught wife. After the movie, I  thought perhaps crafting an adorable children’s story to repaint the harder years of my childhood would be therapeutic for me too. But here, again, is the truth of her story; Pamela was never super happy. Helen Lyndon surfaced enough for her to author whimsical children’s stories, study Zen Buddhism, fall in love with her flatmate, and live for a year with a Hopi tribe. But sadly, Pamela won. According to Emma Thompson and the New York Times, her grandchildren claim she died “loving no one and with no one loving her.”

And here is my truth: I value love and happiness.  My dad, who fought depression for decades of my life, is absolutely heroic for surviving and for helping others who hurt like him. My mother, who remains at his side, is absolutely My Hero.  Fiction couldn’t paint a better story. Given the tools they had, their dedication to parenting, their commitment to joy, and the effort it takes to parent at all, I am blown away by their ability to raise two happy, stable, thriving teenagers who felt loved and supported by their parents. My dad carried that burden, and as a psychiatrist he fervently and brilliantly served the needs of thousands of depressed and anxious people, and still managed to love his wife and his kids to pieces.

I am happy to say that Ellen is not always present in my life, especially when things are smooth, and definitely when things get busy. I love busy. I love exciting. I love stress. We all do, us adult-children-of-parents-with-miscellaneous-battles. When my guard falters; when I have pain, grief, disappointment or limbo, I am surprised by my resilience, but I am also surprised by my anxiety. I am surprised by Ellen’s attempts at toughness, control and safety. She fears friends knowing she has weaknesses. She’d rather appear angry than sad. She craves stability. She wants to throw a pillow over her head and unhear the arguments at night that plagued some yucky years of her life. She wants to run away. Ellen actually believes people are angry with her when she feels down and exposes wounds. Some of them might be, especially the ones with a little inner Pamela, but we all have our better sides.

So please, call me Ellen. I want to remember she is there. I want to remember to subdue her; to remind her that I am fine. I don’t need her help anymore. I want her to hear my friends laugh at her; the ones that call her out, and love the real me.

I am amazed by my mother’s levity during the hard times. Her sense of humor, overarching love, and willingness to talk made everything ok. I see everything that is wonderful in my dad, without hesitation, and find inspiration in his tenacity.  I hope they feel incredibly proud of the adversity they overcame and the life and love they gave me. I am delighted to say that I am not really Ellen or Pamela, though I cried buckets for them both. In the end of my story, I choose happiness and love. And on the very hardest of days, I sneak a spoonful of sugar or two. See my list.

Spoonfuls of Sugar:wtie
1) Hugs
2) Sunsets/sunrises/sun on snow/warm sun/all things sunshine
3) Snowfall in trees
4) Kids in ties at inappropriate times
5) Handfuls of 
chocolate chips
6) Kids outside with rosy cheekssunsetmpls
7) All songs, Paul Simon
8) Inexplicable things in nature
9) Poems by Mary Oliver
10) Puppies and babies
11) Brightly colored fabric
IMG_0001_312) Hats, all types
13) Singing
14) Swimming in lakes
15) Snow days that force people to help each other
16) YMCA camps
17) Young people listening to old people
18) The things kids say, e.g., “do you think I could be the next Michael Jackson?”
19) The OlympicsKidsbooks
20) Tea
21) NeighborlinessIMG_4126
22) Falling into deep snow
23) Whiskey with honey
24) Down comforters
25) Friends
26) Family
27) Reading 
28) Theater
29) Evergreens
30) Mary Poppins

What are your spoonfuls of sugar?  Please comment.

…shock and awe have been as integral to our days as sleep and hugs.

IMG_1479My 3 boys all had the same first word; “uh oh.” This says a lot about us.  Soon after, the two oldest acquired, “what the?”  I distinctly remember my now-nine-year-old saying it for the first time at age three as we wandered upon a slimy dead fish on a walking path quite far from water. My five-year-old has been saying “whad da huck?” since age two. Perhaps we are less colletively shocked by life these days, however, because my youngest son’s utterance of the phrase is still pending at three. I find it rolls off my oldest boys’ tongues as easily as “no nap” and “hold me,” I assume because shock and awe have been as integral to our days as sleep and hugs. Daily, I am wonderstruck by the strange things I am forced to do in the care of my children.

Sometimes its messy:

photo-22This is a cup in a shower surrounded by toys.  As all wise mother’s do upon locating mysterious substances near places previously occupied by children, I sniffed it. Pee. It’s a cup of pee.  The funnel was also implicated.

My oldest also once helped his bestie construct a waterfall down a carpeted staircase. My youngest once emptied a gallon of green paint on the kitchen table while I searched for a tool to open it.

These incidents pale in comparison to the time I was presented a rhythm stick while eating dinner with friends. Immediately apparent, the stick had been stuck into poop and withdrawn. We were not picnicking on a lawn or some other such forgivable location, nor were we with company good for poop on a stick at the dinner table. What ensued was a long search for the origin of said poop, never to be found. We call it “the poop stick incident.”

Sometimes it’s dangerous:

When our middle son, Wilder, was 12 months old, I came downstairs in the morning to a naked baby standing on the counter rifling through medicine bottles. He didn’t know how to walk, much less climb. He had never before exited his crib independently, nor removed his diaper. He had had an inspired morning. My youngest, Wes, bested him at eighteen months by forcing us to replace our three foot fence with a six footer because of his escape artistry. And then there was the fire he once started in the rice cooker as I stood two feet away from him, frying tilapia.

Impossible:

One day of summer “vacation,” before 9am, my boys showed me a movie they had made on my phone while I changed Wes’s diaper; a spectacular vantage of their bottoms, followed by full frontal nudity.  While we were discussing why we call private parts “private,” Wes flooded the bathroom, “washed” the kitchen sink with a toilet brush, and threw a plate on the floor with such force it set off the house alarm.

Embarrassing:

My youngest does not say “truck” politely. He once pointed to a truck in the window of the library and ran screaming his lewd version clear to the opposite side.  I was 2% horrified, 98% entertained by the mixed responses of librarians, parents, elders and teenagers. But it gets better/worse. A naughty neighbor recently goaded him, “say truck,” over and over. I did not squelch it soon enough. Next thing I know my little man is transferring his lesson to the five-year-old’s two-year-old little brother. Their conversation went like this: “Say “f*#!,” “F*#!, louder and louder until I regained my capacity to parent.

Funny;

Wilder and I took a special trip to the mall one day when he was three; just us. At the time, he had had very limited experience with mannequins and cousins. I opened the door to Nordstroms, he walked in, threw his arms around the well-groomed men’s department mannequins and exclaimed, “oh, my cousins. I’ve been looking for you for so long!”

wilderstash

By age four, he was excelling at the comedic role of straight-man; our own mini Jason Bateman. For instance, while reading through a new stack of library books, my oldest, Tennyson, bragged, “I am reading in my head.” Wilder responded, deadpan, “I am reading in my elbow.” This same kid replied to a guy on the chairlift who queried of Wilder’s age, “I’m turning 40. I’m gonna have a weally big party.”

I can’t always keep up:

We chose to inform our oldest, then five, he was going to be a big brother (again) before we planned how we would explain this phenomenon to our eighteen-month old. As soon as we finished the phrase “we are having a baby,” he had located his brother and explained, “mama has a baby factory inside her.  That’s where she made you and she made me. Now she’s making another baby. The baby factory is called her uterus.” Then he jumped on his bike, raised his first, and exclaimed, “To the uterus, and beyond!”

And these: I didn’t know our oldest could draw shapes until he whipped up a highly detailed war ship. I did not know our middle kid could count to ten until I overheard him count to 100.  I did not know our youngest knew about letters until he sang me the ABC’s. Upon my third son turning four, I had still not finished the book, “Your Three Year Old.”

At times, they are wise beyond their years:

I recently sat in tears, writing my wonderful uncle’s eulogy. My tender eldest son rested his little hand on my typing fingers, gently smiling with a vulnerable heart and saying quite perfectly, absolutely nothing.

BobandGeboA week later our five-year-old drew this picture.  He said, “It’s Uncle Bob throwing a ball to Gebo in Heaven’s House.” When he gave it to me, Tennyson said, “Mom, don’t hold back your tears.”

On a totally different note, when Wilder triumphantly exclaimed one day, “I am the King of all Pagina!!” his thoughtful big brother retorted, “You can’t walk into a castle or the White House and just say that. You have to wear really shiny leather shoes, comb your hair, and bring a nice gift. Then they might believe you.”

They are quite emotional:

I did not know little kids had such big feelings until I lived with them. These creatures’ elbows barely reach their earlobes when raised overhead. Resting atop their shrimpy bodies are immense heads powered by adult-sized frustration, grief, will and glee. My cousin once told me a story of when her three-year-old daughter had a breakdown, crying “I want, I want, I want…” Moments like this, I’ve come to find, are generally not about the object of desire–it’s about learning to get what you want.

For example, I was recently informed that  if I did not comply with my son’s wishes, “your hair will fall out and your clothes won’t fit and you will grow a penis. Seriously.” He had found my weak spots and wasted no time using them against me!

It’s always an internal endeavor:

After 10 years of parenthood I no longer crave sleep.  I have adjusted to a simpler vocabulary, lower level of articulation, lack of alertness and wavering faith that rest will come. My standards are lower. I buy patterned shirts because you can’t see the kid-snot on my shoulders. I exercise when it’s feasible. I live with the fact I may have microbes of poop on my sleeves. Speaking of poop (again, and again, and again) I interact with it, discuss it, think about it, more than I ever thought tolerable. I do not know what to do with myself when my arms are empty. I have stopped keeping lists because they generally just make me feel bad about myself. I find I am happier if I count on the important things to rising up inside of me and the others not truly being important. Shockingly, this system rarely fails! I do keep a calendar, on which the days click by faster everyday.

“Notice the details,” my dad always says, “and time will slow down.” Beyond the calamity and hilarity, when time does slow down and I am in the moment, the biggest surprise of all is that I still have reserves. I had no idea what I was capable of feeling, accomplishing, tolerating, negotiating, surviving, and creating before my children arrived.

Occasionally, there will be victories;

racemom

I participated in a ski race this morning.  My children sent me on my way, saying, “I hope you win!” I am not a winner of races. I was humbled and winded when I reached the final stretch and saw them perched on a hay bale, their beautiful faces smiling and cow bells ringing. As I raced toward the glowing display of love and support, the thought rose inside of me, “Criminy, Wes is supposed to be at a birthday party!” But I charged on, as parents do, and was greeted at the end with ebullient hugs and exclamations, “you have a medal mama! You won, mama!!!” Someday I will tell them about finishers’ medals. But today, I’m happy to be a winner in their eyes.