Caucus Day and I’m Conflicted

My kids asked me who I will vote for tonight. I stood in front of them and their futures and their health care and their college loans and their warming globe and their wages and their gender identities and their military service and their spouses and their safety and their financial security and their educations and their sense of social justice, and I thought good and hard.

My entire career has been about social justice, empowering young women, supporting young men, building educational opportunity and strengthening networks of social support. Who is my candidate?

I am voting for who I believe is the strongest candidate for the job. I am voting for someone I admire. We all should, and respect one another for having an opinion and voting tonight.

I read last night about Hillary, “She’s just another Al Gore” and the whimsey imbedded in that comment by a friend chilled me. I am not voting by gender for the highest office in our country, but I will also not ignore gender’s role in our politicians’ careers and candidacy.

In the country in which I have grown and worked, been an activist, a mother and a child, a student, voter, teacher and policy advocate, in which I have been employed and unemployed and underemployed, being female has affected my experience. It feels different to me, being female, when I walk home alone after dark and when I apply for jobs. It felt different when I compared my pay stub to my brothers for the same job and he got paid more. It felt different in chemistry class when our teacher made the girls sit in front because science didn’t come “naturally” to us. It felt different when six of my friends were raped during their college careers. It felt different for me when I left my career to parent and attempted to re-enter it. It feels different when I read stories of girls being followed home from South high by men in white vans. It feels different that only 15% of elected positions are held by women in Minnesota. It feels different that I have never seen a woman President run our country.

In interviews that compare potential female to male candidates, women cite reasons not to run such as family obligations, lack of role models in policy careers, what the media does to female candidates, investing their family’s money in an election, being physically threatened by elected officials, and knowing their constituency would not support a woman for the job. Men do not. I love Bernie’s ideals, and he could be my candidate. But I will not deny his privilege and I can’t imagine he would either.

A woman could not be a candidate for President today without political connections and savvy. She could not run on aspirations or even ideals alone. She must wear a coat of armor yet she cannot raise a fist or speak in an angry tenor without repercussions. She cannot have a history that includes arrests. She cannot move to the top without the time it takes to make mistakes and change her mind on issues. I actually WANT a candidate who is willing to think and think again, perhaps change her mind when she hears something new from the people she represents.

Whether or not you agree with her or want to vote for her, seeing a woman run for President is a mark of progress toward a more liberal country and it thrills me to see it. Progressive think tanks studied and demonstrated years ago that there has never been a politician more denigrated by the media than Hillary Clinton. Support has been withdrawn from some of the progressive left, which I consider myself very much a part of, and that may be based upon her record. But there is no way we can separate her record from the misogyny that follows her everywhere.

Bernie and Hillary have similar ideas. I am torn. But I also recognize that the material Bernie’s supporters use to separate him, at times, is the very sustenance it took for her to be his colleague today. What sets her apart for me is not her gender. But I am impressed by the extra labor she has done because of her gender. Regardless of your vote, I would like to see progressive America honor this moment in time.

I believe that Hillary will be more successful in this particular role in government–feel free to disagree. But please stop underestimating my research, my intelligence, my ideals and my reasons. It is antithetical to your vote for progress. Let’s go vote. Tomorrow we will likely find ourselves on the same team and I want to be proud to be there with you.

I finally got my nose pierced

Early this morning a car blew through a stop sign in front of me and I did a 360 degree skid getting out of its way. It didn’t even slow down. I chased the car down and got the license plate.

Soon after that I blew a speaker and fogged up my ears listening to Led Zeppelin.

Then I got my nose pierced!

Leaving the parking lot I nearly backed into someone and refused to apologize–what kind of nincompoop walks that closely behind a moving vehicle.

At the gas station, I stole a snickers bar because it said, “rebellious.” Come on–does anyone pay for that one?

I impressed some teen-agers with the speed of my car and volume of my bass.

I also got Lasix surgery and they threw in botox between my brows.

When I got home my child asked me for candy and I responded, “no.” He asked “why” and I yelled “because I am taking my ###@!! poop in peace.”

Then I went to take a one-day workshop on electric guitar and now I play. Like a boss.

On the way home, I illegally passed a very slow, dripping clean, white Mercedes while driving on a twisty residential street.

And I sang along to Supertramp so loud, they say I’ll need vocal node surgery (like Adele. Adele is so awesome).

Hopefully it will be a quick recovery, because I also got a call saying I made the cast of Ordway’s production of Wicked, coming soon!! Dream come true!

And coincidentally, I qualified for the extreme rescue division of the International Red Cross.

After I found out, I played the drums in my garage in a white tank top until I sweat like Mary Stewart Masterson. So. Inspiring.

And I dyed the ends of my hair five shades of pink and belted out, in my fast car, “Na na na na na na…she’s got the look” on my way to work.

When I walked into the Senate in a power suit and declared, “I’m selling your salaries to the highest bidder until you add inflationary increases to the General Education Fund,” they did it!

Since I was on a winning streak, I stabbed a snake fang into a book on Alzheimer’s and the disease oozed into the ether, like Voldemort in the Chamber of Secrets, only forever.

Then I perfected my conversational Spanish.

Then, I had an affair with Kendrick Lamar.

I put my name in the hat for Presidency.

And drove twelve minutes further, bought a ticket, and sat alone among strangers on a plane to San Juan, anywhere.

But I made it back for choir, where I sang my angst so loudly into Beethoven’s 9th that my fingers bled (paper cut).

I tucked in my kids.

And drank tea.

Some days I amaze myself.

 

 

This Gentle Helper

Photo on 1-16-16 at 10.04 AM“Mom, are you are a princess or a queen?”
“I’ll be the Queen. What is dad then?”
“He can be the Prince until you retire. Then he can be King.”
“Sounds fair.”
“And I am your Royal Wizard,” replies my enrobed seven-year-old.

He pulls out a satchel.

“I have here my wizarding goods. An extra wizard robe and hat. Two magic bandages. A pack of magic pills. Super magnifier. Enchanted sponge. Dark magic. Coconut oil. Mint oil. Wizard crystal. A flaming mirror. A bonker. An oil I made – you should smell it. Petrified wood. Enchanted petrified stone. A cork. Fire in a bottle. And last but not least, flexipotion. If I attach this to the medicine and my ears, it will warm me up.”

His collection is adapted from my childhood Fisher Price doctor kit. He appears to equate wizardry with healing. I inquire further, “what are your plans for our kingdom, Royal Wizard?”

“I am thinking I could help those homeless refugees. Fresh food, fresh water, fire in a bottle and some other potions. A house in a box. You need magic. Unfold it. Tap it with a wand, say “pigtail” and out pops the house.”

What would the Queen do without her Royal Wizard?

It is zero degrees outside today with a -20 degree “real feel.” We are discomforted only by the cancelation of plans to ski. We do not anticipate homelessness, ever, for ourselves or our offspring. We have no need of wizard’s work. But this wizard has big plans.

Across the globe, other families do need his help. They are homeless and growing colder everyday. Or they are in refugee camps. Some are housed among inhospitable neighbors and cannot find work. Others have faired better and are creating new lives. But they are not home. It is unlikely they will ever go home. According to World Vision, “the crisis in Syria affects more than 12 million people,” well beyond the scope of a seven-year old Royal Wizard.

Yet he doesn’t turn his back. He’s thinking, “what could I do?”

O that men like this gentle helper, who saved a wounded man and treated as his neighbour an unknown stranger, may be found all over the world.
Disease is spreading, war is stalking, famine reigns far and wide.
But when one mortal relieves another like this, charity springing from pain unites them.

This prose, translated from Latin to English, is lifted from Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium and tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In September, I listened over the shoulder of my choir director as he played the haunting chords and read to me from this score. Our choir, MacPhail Center for Music’s adult ensemble, Sonomento, had just begun rehearsing this piece for our January 31st concert. It was the week stories of children drowning and boats capsizing and families walking hundreds of miles began to break our hearts. Through wet eyes, I said, “This is about Syria.” He agreed. “You know who our neighbor is…” He looked up, uncertain where I was headed. “The American Red Cross. We can’t sing this without singing for them.” Surprised, Craig revealed, “Britten actually composed this Cantata for the 100th anniversary of the International Red Cross in 1963.”

In that moment, the opportunity to do something on the behalf of the refugees presented itself to us. MacPhail sits a few short blocks from the American Red Cross in Minneapolis. The International Red Cross has been tirelessly involved in refugee relief efforts across Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Our January concert became a collaboration between MacPhail and the International Red Cross.

Music is not a house in a box, but it has magical healing properties, bringing people together and expressing what we fall short of in words.

Misericordia translates, “mercy.” The Cantata concludes,

Who your neighbour is, now you know.
Go and do likewise.

Be a gentle helper. Consider a donation to the Red Cross. Learn more about the crisis. Consider volunteering on behalf of refugee families in Minnesota with a church based or nonprofit program.

And on Sunday, January 31st at 7pm in Minneapolis, come hear us sing for our neighbors near and far.

My Dad is 80

 

Today Douglas Hedlund​, my dad, turns 80. I couldn’t find one picture of him without his arms around my mom or tightly holding my brother or I or his grandkids. He grew up in a farming family in Fargo. He was the first in his family to attend college. He served as a Navy doctor during Vietnam. He was a psychiatrist for 53 years. He left Abbott hospital when they wanted to restrict the length of his appointments and the amount of therapy he could offer patients. He toured churches giving lectures on becoming affirming congregations. He campaigned on behalf of later school starts, more hospital access for mental health patients and the ethical responsibility of mental health providers to accept Medicare and Medicaid. He also never missed a race or concert, not mine or my brothers.

I remember my brother and I used to have contests to see who could get him to laugh. He was often busy working, thinking or reading reading reading. He remains a lousy small talker. But if you’d like to discuss feminism, hone your decision making skills, attempt to solve the riddle of anxiety disorders or just tell someone your life story as he sits and listens deeply and pats your arm, he is your guy. He won’t judge. He will take your late night phone call when you can’t stop crying or worrying and he will always succeed in making you feel better–and he does not reserve this for his kids. Really, you can call him anytime.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn his seventies, he reduced his private practice hours in order to work one day a week at Lutheran Social Services. He did it again when Tennyson needed infant care. He loves babies. Do other dads stay nearby and offer breastfeeding advice? With my parents doing childcare for me, I felt like I got to witness how they raised me–what a practice in gratitude.

Though cloudy with Alzheimer’s, I recently couldn’t help but call him when once again, I had to explain the news of a mass shooting to my kids. I asked, “Is the world becoming a more violent place?” Keep in mind this is a guy who can’t keep the days of the week straight these days

P1010049“Yes. There has always been hatred and extremism and war. But now children see it everyday. They have access to images and stories and videos because media and information have changed. It doesn’t matter if there is more violence in the world. Our perception of the world is more violent than it once was, and it is that perception that shapes our well being, our sense of safety and our mental health. I worry about that for children and I worry about access to guns. Talk about violence and their fears, but talk about peace too. Talk about solutions and let them know they are safe.”

Maybe it just doesn’t matter what day of the week it is today.

My dad also struggled with depression and anxiety. I asked him once if I could write about that–reveal that. He said, “We should all talk about our mental health struggles more.” I deeply believe that he would not have been as long in this world without my mom. They love each other fiercely and as they reach their eighties, appear to have somewhat exhausted themselves in the care of each other and their family and friends. With luck and persistence, he wooed my mom with a song. I believe that song saved his life.

My dad was not typical. He was not easy. He married levity and an easy laugh with the wisdom that he lacked it himself. Only in the company of children, laughing with my mom or on the golf course does his lighter side appear. And that is why Alzheimer’s, despite all we hate about it, has eased some of his burdens. It’s not so bad, after all, that he can’t get to the end of every troublesome thought. He smiles more. His laugh comes more easily. He will walk next to you now, not a mile ahead.

I know wedad bday 048 are losing a little of him everyday. I miss him sometimes after spending the day with him. We will miss his thrilling intelligence and stories of American history, adventures in Fargo and recollections of his cousins. Alzheimer’s feels some days like a sickening long goodbye. Alzheimer’s also has the potential to feel socially awkward. Luckily for us, nothing new there. A nurse recently said, “He seems to be growing more quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t want to talk about the weather.” My mom and I just laughed. Some days I’m angry that the universe paid him back for his service by afflicting his mind. But mostly, I am grateful he is turning eighty today and I am still his girl.

Aliens are eating the moon

11707549_10153466072893762_5651498996068497509_n6:30 in the morning: The room is dark. I attempt to fish earrings out of my jewelry (and miscellaneous junk) box. I get one on and the other’s backing will not take hold. I peek at it in the light of the glowing alarm. It’s not an earring backing. It is someone’s baby tooth.

Parenthood is so weird.

At a recent interview: My interviewer, a pregnant thirty-something in a nice maternity suit, asks me about the “five year blank” in my resume. I tell her I was home full time with my kids, but as she can see, I chaired committees, fundraised thousands of dollars, spoke professionally at hearings and rallies, wrote a blog, coached, managed, scheduled, entertained, taught, multi-tasked, created, evaluated, led and negotiated like a boss during that time. She responds, “It’s not that I don’t respect what you were doing, it’s that while you had the privilege of taking time off, other people were working hard.”

Parenthood is so easy.

An hour into my workday: My boys’ school calls me to retrieve my sick son. Two of three have thrown up in the past week–it is his destiny. We make it home. He has the best aim of all of them–I am weary of scrubbing and grateful he is last. We read some Magic Treehouse. I snuggle kids with sore throats and fevers. I do not snuggle pukers. I make up for it with Sprite on crushed ice and a straw, popsicles, saltines and unlimited screen time. Until he actually felt sick, I am pretty sure this kid was jealous of sick 1 and sick 2. He’s attempted fake-sick everyday since I first made jello. We get a nice rotation going of couch, porcelain, shower, couch. After a long rest and two vomit-free hours, my husband takes over while I go for a run. Upon my return, he is quite proud of getting a full glass of water into the child. Post run and shower, I approach the bed to check my cutie-pie’s temp. He projectile voms a full glass of water and orange jello straight onto my chest and down to my feet.

Parenthood is a puke train.

I am singing my favorite song. My youngest starts to sing along with me. “Mom, do you want to be a rocket star when you grow up?” I say, “Yes–of course.” He inhales sharply, “You can sing and play your guitar and I can play my…” he trails off and returns strumming his ukulele. We sing. He stops thoughtfully and looks at me; “Wait but mom you already growed up and you are not a rocket star.” He suggests that if I make my hair crazier, perhaps I could still be a rocket star. He asks, “what are you then?” I say, “I sing in a choir. I am a mom. I write and I work for schools.” He says, “That is so sad.”

Parenthood–damn. I’m doing my best here, small man.

After a long week home with sick kids, I take the dog for a walk. I generally follow the rules but it is about as good a day for bending them as I’ve had in awhile. No one is around–I let her off leash. She runs toward the willow fort the neighborhood daycare kids built. She poops just outside the door. I realize I’ve forgotten a bag so I pick it up with two large leaves. Even green leaves crumble in the fall. Dangit. It is then I realize two things. One, I do have a bag. And two, she pooped on a dead squirrel. What the hell? Unfortunately, I care about the daycare kids. Dangit dangit. The thing has adhered to the ground in some sections so I have to dig a little with a stick. I first decapitate it (not my intention). Bit by bit I bag the squirrel. I have not flinched nor faltered. The doorway of the willow fort is clear.

Parenthood is so rewarding.

The school district sends home a letter: “If your child misses three more days of school this semester…asking you to be responsible…could result in a hearing…your child’s education is important to us.”

Parenthood is gratifying.

I wake up to my eleven-year-old making pancakes before school this morning. He tells a joke I genuinely get and we laugh. Later, his best friend stops by while biking home (alone) from the library–wait–didn’t I just pull you two there in a wagon last week? I can’t keep up. I secretly liked it when my son was sick and we watched big-kid movies and played monopoly all day. He now smirks during movies when there are scenes with girls. We’ve talked about “stuff” including whether he relates to those moments? Yes, he says, but it seems unrealistic that boys in movies never have boyfriends and girls in movies never have girlfriends. How would someone feel? Whoa–empathy–didn’t you just learn to share toys?

Parenthood is ephemeral.

We are outside under an eclipsing moon. As it grows darker my “baby,” age four, reaches up as far as he can stretch. “Pickle me up” he says because he knows I cannot resist. When I situate him about my waist, he has to stretch himself down to my shoulder to rest his head. I hold him a little lower. I think, trying not to think, I can barely hold him. Arms shaking slightly as we stand very still, I ask him what he thinks of the eclipse. He says, “aliens are eating the moon. Let’s go inside.”

Parenthood is heavy.

A friend shares with me decisions she’s untangling about her career and upcoming changes. She exhales and gestures toward her daughter who is laughing with her friends one hundred feet away. “You know, at the center of so many choices I make is something that is constantly changing and will someday, “poof,” leave my home forever. It goes faster than I ever expected.” I relate. “Poof:” it will feel like a fleeting shadow to have woven an entire career, lifestyle, finances, emotions and even our physical space around. If I am the moon, they are the aliens.

Parenthood is being eaten alive.

Our children come along and make everything look as different as night and day. But they never stand still. In practically the same moment we are eclipsed, we reappear.

Parenthood is knowing the moon will survive.

Eleven Years of Tennyson

Last week I asked my oldest son to complete a chore with me. As he jumped from foot to foot on hot concrete, flies swarmed around us. He offered, “it’s stinky over here,” and “perhaps what you need, mom, is a kitchen shears instead of garden pruners.” But he stayed with me, humming, hopping and smiling. We finished the project, high fived and walked into the shade. He put his arm around me and said, “That was fun.” I laughed as tears rose in my eyes. He noticed, “Mom—how could that possibly choke you up?”

I have witnessed him accomplish remarkable things in eleven years that made me feel proud: piano recitals, choir performances, artwork, inventions, brotherly kindness, acts of compassion. But, I have never felt more optimistic a great future lies before him than when we cut the ropes off our old baby swing together next to the stinky garbage can on a simmering summer day.

Tenny is bright and likable. He has a winsome smile and an easy way with people. He excels in school and inventing things. He is a creative and quick learner. But resilience and willingness to face adversity will do more for him than any talent born or nurtured. I summed up my tears; “I am just so happy for you.”

Which, of course, made him giggle all the more. His giggle renders me weak at the knees with love and adoration. One of my favorite advances in our relationship this year is laughing together. We suddenly seem to crack each other up. Raising Tenny has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I was prepared to miss each stage as he grew (ok not all of them). What I was not prepared for was how much more interesting, fun and unpredictable he is at every age.

Furthermore, how could there be a pre-teen living in my house? How could he know more than me about computers? And pancake batter? Solar power? How could this be the same little guy who could not sleep anywhere but attached to his parents his first eighteen months? How could he so surprise me? I once knew him better than he knew himself. Everyday, Tenny is less and less kid and more and more his unique self.

IMG_7824We have engaged a tradition for our boys called the “Ten Year Trip.” Instead of a birthday party or gift, they will each choose (within reason) a destination. Tennyson’s selection was an overnight Amtrak trip with mom. He did not care about the destination; only that we slept at least two nights on the train. It speaks volumes of him that he selected a timeworn journey with a balance of exploration and quiet. We had a remarkably good time on our ramble from Seattle to St. Paul, he in awe of the train itself and me in awe of my companion.

This is what the five of us had to share about Tenny at his eleventh birthday dinner:

“He is a great brother.”

“He makes me feel special.”

“He is adventurous.”

“He is confident.”

“He gives great hugs.”

As he said to me earlier this year, “Do you know what I try to do? I try to be optimistic. Just let it roll. Don’t fight the current.” After eleven years of Tennyson, I am certain of one thing. No matter where or how he lands, Tenny will find adventure and purpose in every leap forward.

Being young has nothing to do with being me–I get to have those adventurous, in-love-with-my-world, making new friends, seeing new things, I feel alive feelings at every age.

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BEFORE

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AFTER

In 1888, Brahms wrote five haunting songs for a cappella choir he put to tragic text comparing a falling leaf to the inevitable loss of youth. I sang two of the five songs recently with MacPhail Center for Music’s premier adult choir, Sonomento, on an incredible twelve-day tour in Europe. We sang them among other great choral works, art songs and stirring spirituals in cathedrals of Munich, Prague and Berlin and at the International Brahms Festival in Wernigerode, Germany. I am defying Brahms’s nostalgic lament that “all happiness is lost.”

I have been home now over a week and my brain has yet to arrive from Europe. I daydream about castles and cathedrals and bike rides and opera in the square. I pour over my photos. I am like a teenager just home from summer camp. So many feelings I’d set aside as “when I was younger” and I just learned not only am I still young, but being young has nothing to do with being me–I get to have those adventurous, in-love-with-my-world, making new friends, seeing new things, I feel alive feelings at every age.

Upon my return, my cousin, also a mother of three, asked without judgment, “Is it hard to be home?” The tears that welled up in my eyes answered for me. Others have asked, “Isn’t it good to be home?” And, “Did you miss your kids?” “How is everyone?” I answered, “Yes,” “Of course,” “Recovering,” but those answers weren’t as true. This was the first time I have been away from my responsibilities for more than three nights in over a decade. It felt really, really good.

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Munich

Re-entry has been bitter sweet. My sons seem cuter and my home more acceptably disastrous. My husband and I are suddenly loopier for each other than we’ve been in years. I feel rested and lighter. But the boys have paid me back with a few days of misbehavior. And come on, I have had to wash dishes, wipe butts and quell tantrums?? No one has made me a morning smorgasbord of fruit, juices, muesli and delicious meats, cheeses and pastries. I have not been offered a trip to a palace with our delightful tour guide or the option to go rogue in Munich on a rented bicycle. I don’t get to sing on a riverboat on the Vltava today or rehearse in a Mercedes bus. And I will not spend the day exploring centuries past, digesting complex histories or simply laughing, drinking wine and enjoying new friendships.

In fact, my weeds are overgrown and the garage needs organizing. Kids are visiting Crankyville and they want to be entertained. By day two, Project Re-entry, I was fighting being overwhelmed by the complexity of our life, my children’s volume and our extensive mass of belongings. I missed my quiet, my suitcase and my songs: so simple.

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Prague

Being away alone, I woke up. I had excess energy. I had time to feel my own needs. I realized how much I have been missing feeling like my best self. I cried all the way home—it wasn’t jet lag. I was nervous my trip would just be over, rather than transformative, and my newfound joy would fade away as easily as Brahms’s leaf.

But my heart opens up like it did when I was there when I listen to recordings from our trip. I am so grateful to music for providing my fellow choristers and I this experience that has in fact, been transformative. One singer said to me, “This has been the greatest experience of my life.” I imagine few of us would have self-indulged in an experience like this had we not a greater purpose in going: to sing and to represent MacPhail. That air of responsibility allowed us to play, explore and bond in a way grown ups don’t often allow ourselves and that surfaced in our sound.

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Wernigerode

We surprised ourselves by earning silver diplomas in two categories at the Brahms Festival. By popular demand, we were also invited to sing our African-American spiritual, “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” at the final ceremony. When we exited the stage, tiny members of a Chinese children’s choir flocked to our sides. In fact, that song brought smiles and clapping to reserved international audiences throughout our tour. Our last morning in Wernigerode, I went for a run and singers from a youth choir from Taiwan stopped me for a photograph and told me, “That is our favorite song.” Written out of slavery, it speaks for itself a half century later, bridging community and sharing joy.

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Berlin

As a parent, I feel pressured to say our children are my greatest joy. But I bet you can relate to my truth. I was tired. We have also had losses and hurts and late nights and worries since having children. I was happy and grateful, but I think I’d forgotten what inner joy felt like. And when you don’t realize you’ve lost something, you stop looking for it.

It turns out that it’s up to me to revive my best self when I am lost. We so value productivity and stability in mid-American culture that it can deemphasizes the value of simple joy. But the music, the culture and the people with whom I traveled reminded me that joy creates energy and has permanence beyond youth (sorry, Brahms). I am a better human with more to contribute to my family and community with joy. Two weeks of singing and exploring brought me somewhere totally unexpected: back to me.

What’s more, I now have these memories that will point like a compass back here when I get a little lost:

  • My first gelato after our inaugural performance in Munich.

  • The power of singing emotional music in our full registers within a cathedral constructed to synergize choral sound.

  • IMG_8444Dancing to a live performance of Earth, Wind and Fire under umbrellas in the Old Town Square of Prague.

  • Hearing the soprano’s notes reflect off centuries old buildings in an outdoor performance of Carmina Burana in Oden Square, Munich.

  • The German word, “löschwassereinspeisung.” Such a great word.

  • IMG_8936Singing our final Abendlied surrounded by 360 degrees of blue stained glass at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

  • Riding a bike with friends uphill to a castle and back down again in the rain.

  • Hearing in my own laugh something familiar and deeply happy.

 

Princess for a Day

Today on the way home from school I readied my kids for a trip to the bakery by giving them each $2. As I was getting out of my car a woman asked me, “can you give me enough money to buy my kids and I a loaf of bread?” I don’t always give money to the men (it’s usually men) on the corner we pass in our car everyday. They stand on the wrong side of the street for me to give them money–which is a nice excuse for me to avoid deciding if I think I should give them any.

But she asked me on foot and in front of my kids. She was so brave and so polite, standing a safe distance with her hands in her pockets. At first, with iPhone in one hand and credit card in the other, I told her I didn’t have any cash. This is also a convenient excuse.

She said, “Ok thank you. Have a good day.”

What am I to say in response? “You have a great day too?”

I remembered I had a coin purse in my car that had been there since the coin meters were replaced downtown. Money I could put aside and forget about for years.

“Actually, can you wait a second?” I climbed in my car. “Thank you so much,” she responded.

“Do you know what a loaf of bread costs these days?” Because I don’t. I just throw it in my cart (I think to myself).

“I’m sorry but it’s probably over $2.50 at this store. We just moved here and it hasn’t been working out like I hoped.” She kicks the dirt as I search. “My kids and I are staying with my sister but we’re homeless. I tried Family Partnership but they weren’t that helpful.”

I just spent the morning at the Minnesota Legislature on behalf of parents everywhere. I’ve done this kind of work in committees across health, environment and education over the last decade. Today I observed the House Education Innovation Policy Committee. In this moment it hits me that the whole reason I am at the Capitol is to do what I can to make sure money gets put into the hands of the people that need it most.

I have my opinions on how that money should get allocated: early learning scholarships, career and technical education, smaller class sizes, better assessments of student growth, teacher development, concurrent enrollment, American Indian education, special education, free breakfast, help, hellllllpppp HELP!!!!! It is so incredibly complicated.

And here, I almost missed an opportunity to put money directly into the hand of a parent who needed it.

We chatted a bit. I gave her some ideas. Told her not to give up on Minnesota. We take care of our own here.

At least I want to believe that we do. Most days, the truth is, it seems so hard with such limited resources to get the people the help that they need. Sharing is hard work.

I sometimes wonder why I care so much. Why can’t I quit these kinds of jobs and sell cupcakes?

UnknownWe were watching Star Wars with our kids a few weeks ago when Princess Leia bent down and put the message in R2D2. The Princess. The wise and brave Princess–daughter of a Senator–she would save the world. I loved her. I said to my six year old as we watched together, “I think I’ve always wanted to be Princess Leia.” He looked up at me, “If you are the Princess, I am your clone.”

And when it was over I said to my ten year old, “I’ve been to church, I’ve been to the Capitol, I watch the President on TV, I travel, I search and I wonder, where are the wise people, the great and noble Senate that is trying to save the world? Maybe there isn’t one!” The kid doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh there is, mom, don’t worry. It’s just in a galaxy far far away.”

She turned left to the grocery store with my quarters and we turned right to the bakery. “Oh shoot boys; it’s closed! It wasn’t our turn today.”

In 20 fast steps they catch up to her and give her their $4.00.

Just for a day–the Princess and her clones.

It was so easy.

School Funding is a Warm Sweater

school funding is a warm sweaterI was recently standing around the printer for teacher’s use at my son’s public elementary school, waiting for my Lego League rules to print. In the 23 minutes I waited, 9 teachers popped in and out to see if their print job was done. “Yes,” they agreed. Printing and copying in this building is under-resourced right now.

This is an excellent public school with an amazing staff and campus. This is the same school that has a state-of-the-art adapted playground under construction. The same school that started receiving Title One funding for ELL, special education, and targeted efforts to close its achievement gap last year. And, the same school that can only afford to have a nurse on site 4 days a week (though this is more than most)! These discrepancies illustrate the complicated mess of algorithms that is public education funding.

A recent MinnPost article by Beth Hawkins likened our school funding challenge at this time to “the gradual opening of faucets after a reservoir has been refilled.” This image, however, leaves out some nitty gritty, yet significant, details, such as the fact that the reservoir is not actually full. Much of what it takes to educate Minnesota’s students is still funded by an entirely separate pool managed by voters who will choose to open or not to open the levies.

In addition, the fingers on the faucets are not those of administrators or educators or even school board members: it’s lawmakers. Which means, those faucets will dribble open (and shut) as they campaign for their offices, are educated by stakeholders in the first weeks in office, debate at the Capitol, hear influential commentary from constituents and special interest groups and make compromised decisions based upon popular beliefs, myths, and influences well outside of what is best for Minnesota students.

This is a dim view. The truth is, this is also the messy business of democracy at work and the spending of tax dollars. Almost every stakeholder, no matter their view, believes strongly they have children’s best interest at heart. Let’s try a softer image to better understand what happens at the school level, and why there are printer shortages and amazing playgrounds in the same building: an old sweater.

Let’s think of each district as its own sweater—Minnesota has 341 sweaters that were knit by the state itself. Within the weave of each sweater, there are strong and tight threads that maintain the basic integrity of the garment. There are also snags; loose threads that got hung up on unexpected obstacles. When snags became holes that will eventually become runs, threatening to destroy the utility of the sweater, the holes were patched. Sometimes patches are provided directly to that sweater by voter levies, benevolent philanthropists, grants, or parent fundraising. Sometimes the sweater has to go back to the original knitter for repairs, but this takes awhile: a very long while.

And then there are times that the knitters send all the sweaters patches, some bigger some smaller, some perfect fits and some that just barely cover the holes. The educators and administrators and school boards knit them into the fabric at the local level.

Sometimes there are particular spots that tend to wear and pill. Administrators are also in charge of deciding whether to pluck off the pilling bits or dry clean the whole thing to see if it improves overall. Sometimes shrinking the sweater in the wash is the only thing that will keep it from unraveling.

Thankfully, it is very rare that the knitters will recall a sweater, or even threads. Generally once it’s knit it’s knit. As the sweaters age some threads get loose, some remain strong, some snag, some simply dissolve.

It is also important to understand that, each thread, each row, each cross-stitch, was done according to the knitter’s pattern at the state. Though the sweater is under the care of each district’s administration and school board, fundamentally, they do not have the freedom to tighten lose threads by pulling on adjacent threads because each was tied by the knitters into different funding sources. In other words, in this system, furnace repairs cannot be paid for with salary freezes. New printers cannot be purchased with playground money.

Luckily in Minnesota, we really appreciate our sweaters. It’s cold here. We need to stay warm and generally, our sweaters endure under even the harshest of conditions.

 

Written for the Minnesota grassroots nonprofit, Parents United for Public Schools

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