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.

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.

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.”

My Best Ideas of 2013

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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!

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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!

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

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

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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!

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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!

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Swimming in waterfalls is just a deeply good idea.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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It started innocently, and grew…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hot, Cool, Ours

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This is our world winter games

The Olympics is a time of unity in the name of competitive sportsmanship. Unity. Sportsmanship. Doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in Americans. I would be less embarrassed of a beautifully flawed 5th ring and a few unlaid bricks or electrical problems than I currently am in our gross effort to critique and mock the effort put forth by the PEOPLE of Sochi. Quit it. My children thought the opening ceremonies was extraordinary. My children are excited about the games and the cultures and the languages and the PEOPLE yet I feel a great need to say to America; GROW UP. Quit your fun-making and “I’m bored” whining and culture-maligning and show some unity. Yes: communism has its issues. But give those people living under that repressive government a couple of weeks to be proud of themselves. That’s sportsmanship.