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Zoe: “I can’t wait for my sparring class tomorrow!”
Me: “Great! I’m glad you’re so excited.”
Zoe: “How could I not be? It’s awesome!”
After dinner Randy helped Zoe mold her mouth guard so it fits her teeth.
Last week I watched Zoe during her first sparring class and I was amazed. She was not shy or scared or holding back in any way. At first she was partnered with another girl who is about her age and size and who is the same belt rank. It was also her classmate’s first night in sparring class, although they’ve been together in martial arts class since kindergarten. So that didn’t seem so crazy. They were evenly matched and that particular girl is fierce but Zoe completely held her own. They even wrestled! I’ve never seen Zoe wrestle anyone except Zeke, who is not even two yet (although he can still tackle her and knock her over). But then as the class went on, there was an exercise where the students were divided into groups of five or six and each individual had to stand at the front with the instructor and spar every person in line, one at a time. Then there was the time the whole class was in two long lines and every few minutes they rotated, so Zoe started out against her original partner but eventually was sparring with much bigger, older, and more experienced students. In the picture above, she is sparring with a black belt, one of the student instructors. I think he’s 14. He’s also exhibiting supreme control. Master Emerson instructed the big kids to be very controlled with the younger ones, and they were. But they weren’t standing back and letting the younger ones beat up on them either.
I was really shocked at how exciting it was to see Zoe spar. While martial arts is, technically, the art of war, I have never felt like Zoe’s classes at Evolve All are about fighting. They are about discipline, respect, resilience, perseverance, teamwork, compassion, technique, and kokoro–Japanese for heart. They talk about the black belt attitude, which is about improving yourself and helping others, among other attributes. During the growth ceremonies, the candidates for black belt have to read essays, break many boards using a form they’ve created, and spar with their classmates and Master Emerson for several challenging minutes. The sparring has always been my least favorite part. This is not fighting–everyone is wearing protective gear but it is not the Karate Kid and no one is actually getting hurt. It’s all about technique and stamina. You can tell from watching it is very hard work for these kids.
So I’ve always known Zoe would eventually need to start sparring, but I wasn’t in any rush. What I was eager for her to do was audition for the demo team–the group of kids who perform really impressive techniques and routines during the growth ceremonies and at community events. This was the first year she would be eligible. But then they changed the demo team meeting time to a day that didn’t work for our schedule. And Zoe’s instructor Mister Christian said that sparring was more relevant to what she was learning in class and that would be a better place to start in terms of augmenting her regular classes. And to my surprise, Zoe expressed enthusiasm about sparring. She asked for sparring gear (not cheap) for her birthday.
Last week Zoe asked me if I thought she was a tomboy, because, she said, “I like things that boys usually like, like Star Wars and martial arts and soccer.” Not to mention the series of books about tribes of crazy fighting cats that she and all her friends of both genders are obsessed with. I told her that I thought tomboy was a silly and meaningless word, and that she’s a cool person with diverse interests who didn’t feel limited by stereotypes in her choice of things to do or enjoy. I probably used other words, but that was the idea. Later in the week she approached Randy with the same question and he gave her basically the same answer (yay united parenting front!). Clearly she is thinking about what, if anything, it all means, promoted probably by starting to spar. What I think it means is that she is a strong, independent individual. How great is it to start owning your strength and independence when you’re not even eight years old? I love the fact that when boys in her class write or read something about Star Wars they rush over to tell her about it, because apparently her Star Wars fandom is well known.
Zeke wishes he could spar too. He’s always trying to put on Zoe’s gear. I wish Evolve All would bring back the young masters class for three- and four-year-olds. But Zeke will have his day on the mat. In the meantime, it’s Zoe’s turn and she is not holding back.
Last week when I went to volunteer in Zoe’s classroom, her teacher was beginning a lesson about haiku. When I arrived, she said she had to leave the classroom in 10 minutes to help with a professional development activity and that she would be gone for about an hour. She said there was a sub coming in, but that I could go ahead and teach the lesson. She had given me no prior warning about this–it’s possible she didn’t know, since she is a seasoned teacher and reading specialist and she is frequently called upon to help other teachers with professional development. But surprisingly I wasn’t nervous. I expected to be nervous, but I was excited. She left, the sub arrived and introduced himself to me unintelligibly. And I read and discussed several haikus with the class and then worked with them to write their own.
This may not sound revolutionary to you. It was just an hour with second graders talking about poetry. But it felt kind of extraordinary to me. I have always loved teaching and coaching and tutoring one-on-one or in small groups. Back when I was Presbyterian I taught some adult Sunday school classes and a few years of Vacation Bible School to little kids. No big deal. But teaching a classroom full of students in school has always intimidated me. A good friend of mine who is a teacher used to try to convince me to teach but I told her I couldn’t handle the management part of it. I liked the idea of teaching and discussing and working with the kids, but was terrified of the idea of trying to make the kids behave.
But Zoe’s teacher is so stellar–and she would give credit to the students for being a great group of kids–that there was no discipline required. She has worked hard to foster a kind and compassionate community in her classroom. Certainly, the fact that I’ve come in to work with them every week for the past several months helps too. They know me and I know all their names and have a basic understanding of their abilities, at least in terms of reading and writing. A couple times when the noise level rose even just a little bit–they are encouraged to help each other with writing and using their iPads, and they were supposed to write their final haikus in a haiku app that they had just downloaded–I used the teacher’s “1-2-3 eyes on me” technique, and every kid responded “1-2 eyes on you” and snapped to attention. It was kind of magical.
Afterward I was just so thrilled. I had spent an hour teaching kids about poetry and it was so much fun. Why hadn’t I done this before? I wondered. Then I went straight to my shift at the book fair, where I enjoyed selling books to kids and parents and teachers and chatting with the librarian and talking about children’s books that I love. What else could I want in life, really? I have always loved school libraries, especially in elementary school. I still remember with great fondness my elementary school librarian Miss Dusza. She read many wonderful books to us, including John Bellairs’ The House with the Clock in Its Walls. I made posters for her that she hung up in the library. I don’t remember what the posters were of, but I was very proud of them.
Later I asked Zoe’s teacher whether the sub really needed to be there since I was teaching the lesson and she said it was a legal requirement. I thought, “Hey, I could be a sub!” And then I kicked myself for not thinking of this last fall. Zoe’s teacher has had to have many subs when she is called out to lead professional development and I could have been there teaching the class instead of someone they didn’t even know who wasn’t familiar with what they were working on. Then I looked up the substitute application and saw a transcript is required and felt old and irritated by my less than impressive grades from my first semester of college. And I thought it was probably too late in the year to even consider this whole thing.
Then that night someone who is helping Zoe learn to ride a bike mentioned to me that he was a substitute elementary school librarian that day. What? They have substitute librarians? How cool is that? I had no idea. He said all you have to do to be a librarian substitute is have a librarian show you how the library computer system works. I could do that!
Then yesterday I ran into Zoe’s school librarian at Zoe’s Kitchen and floated this idea by her and she was totally on board. She said she rarely takes days off because she doesn’t know anyone she can trust to sub for her.
Of course I already have my own business to run and plenty of life to keep me busy. But I am really excited about the prospect of possibly substituting for Zoe’s awesome teacher and getting to work with her class even once or twice before the end of the year. And getting to be the librarian for the day! Wow. I am paying my $7 for my imperfect college transcript and requesting letters of recommendation. I am not scared anymore.
It’s disconcerting to see something moving across the floor in your peripheral vision when you’re in your living room and your kids are in bed asleep. Nothing should be scurrying about on your rug. No one should be darting under your furniture or hiding under your son’s toys.
Despite the fact that we have removed three mice in various states of incapacitation from our house, and I found another mouse–dead–in front of our front door yesterday, we do not seem to be rid of our mouse problem. Following Randy’s suggestion (see left), I have not had the courage to remove the dead mouse from in front of our house yet, but I suspect his fellow mice have not seen his current unfortunate state because they are inside and he is outside.
We had a repairperson here yesterday fixing a variety of things that have broken over the past months (maybe years?) and he filled some suspected mice holes. So either there are many more holes we have not yet identified, or a bunch of mice were already inside. Don’t they know it’s nice outside now? The weather has warmed up! They can go back outside and frolic! There’s no reason to stay in here, protected from the snow and ice. The snow has mostly melted! It’s not even raining. Go ahead, mice, go outside to the playground! Have a picnic in the park! If your holes are filled, I will gladly open the front (or back door) and let you out. Enjoy the spring, mice.
Last night while Zoe was having a sleepover with her grandparents, I was hoping Randy and I could do some grown-up thing like watch an R-rated movie or play Bananagrams. Or if Randy had to do work, I would, say, read a book. Instead I had to guiltily dispose of one dead and two distressed mice.
After my last post about the mouse I saw in the bathroom in the middle of the night, several friends offered to loan me humane mousetraps. Those people perhaps are better people than I am. In fact after reading this you may think less of me, but I am what I am at this point. I’m not going to change. Anyway, I had already called Phil, our exterminator, with whom we have an annual contract because we have had many unwelcome small creatures in our house over the past decade. He comes whenever we call because I don’t like the thought of tiny things attacking us or our children as we sleep, or infiltrating our food, or pooping on our stuff. So Phil had come earlier this week and discovered a mouse hole behind my desk and set several traps around the house. He said he thought there was only one mouse, and he didn’t see any signs of the mouse in the kitchen, although in past months and years the mice have definitely been in the kitchen. We thought maybe they wanted to check out the upstairs just for fun.
Then last night while Zeke and I were hanging out making block towers and kind of watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, while Randy went to pick up Vietnamese food from Four Sisters Grill for our dinner, I heard a squeak. You know when you read a book about a mouse or sing “Old MacDonald” and you say “squeak! squeak!” but that’s actually what I heard. It’s much more literal than when you say, “oink” for what a pig says, because if you listen to pigs they don’t really say, “oink.”
Anyway, I sneaked away and checked one of the traps and saw a very dead mouse. It was not squeaking. I did not want to attract Zeke’s attention to the dead mouse, so I moved an easel in front of it. But I still heard squeaking. Clearly it was not coming from the dead mouse. I couldn’t see any other traps. I texted Phil to ask where the other traps were, but he did not answer.
I resumed building and knocking down towers with Zeke. Actually he was doing the knocking down, but we were both building, and I was really impressed by his fine motor skills when he would carefully add blocks to the top of my already tall tower.
Eventually Randy got home and we ate dinner and he put Zeke to bed. While they were upstairs, I gingerly picked up the trap with the dead mouse and put it inside a large plastic cup from a restaurant, and put the cup inside a gift bag decorated with poinsettias left over from last Christmas which was inexplicably in the kitchen in that little space between a cabinet and a kitchen cart where we keep grocery bags. I threw it in the trash and tied up the trash bag and took it outside even though we’re not supposed to put trash outside until the morning when the garbagemen come, because I didn’t want the dead mouse in my house anymore.
I continued to hear intermittent squeaks, which seemed to be coming from the stove. I armed myself with a large metal steamer pot and a plastic plate in case the mice came darting out from under the stove and I was quick enough to catch them. I pulled out the drawer underneath the stove, where we keep pyrex dishes, and saw several glue traps that Phil had left, which are usually for ants or roaches. But stuck in one of the glue traps were not one but two mice, squeaking and immobilized. Great. They’re not dead, but they’re stuck.
I used a paper towel to pick up the trap and put it in the steamer pot and covered it with the plate, just in case they could escape. I went outside and crossed the street and tried to shake the mice out of the trap into the snowy grass by the sidewalk. They would not come out. I did not want to touch the mice. Then I did something I now regret, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do. I just threw the whole thing down in the grass and hoped that the mice would either miraculously escape or mercifully die quickly. I just didn’t know what else to do.
I went back inside feeling terrible about the mice, but also relieved that they were out of my house and at least three fewer mice would be threatening my family with their toxic poop.
Then, since I had found two mice in the kitchen where we didn’t think there were any, I did some investigating. I pulled out the kitchen cart and discovered a great deal of the aforementioned toxic poop. I started to cry, but I stopped because the vent in the kitchen is connected directly to the vent in the kids’ room and the last thing I needed was to wake Zeke up.
So Randy and I spent a good deal of the rest of the evening cleaning up toxic mouse poop and sanitizing the surfaces of the kitchen.
Then today I was moving things around in our minivan so I could give one of Zoe’s friends a ride home from Brownies. I had to clean out all the junk in the back to put up the third row of seats. In so doing, I found a bag containing two gourds leftover from Halloween which I had intended to bring to my sister’s house to compost. Then I found a third gourd decomposing underneath Zoe’s seat. It may or may not have eaten a hole in the rug. I was able to remove much, but not all, of the gourd. I’m not even sure what tool I need to remove the rest. And I had to go in to the Brownie meeting, where we made art, so that was lovely and it took my mind off the rotting vegetation in my car. I don’t know how it didn’t smell, but it didn’t. Maybe because it’s been so cold.
One highlight of the past week has been that we were lucky enough to win tickets to the White House Easter Egg Roll for the first time. I am excited and I know the kids will have a great time even though they don’t really know what it is. Zeke doesn’t even know what Easter is. But Zeke has consistently said Daddy in reference to Randy, and he can breathe like Darth Vader (on purpose) and he said POP when we were making popcorn. And he said “I love you” to my mom.
But I could do without the rodent defecation or vegetation decomposition. And also it would be nice if Zeke would go to sleep. It’s 11:19 and he’s still awake. We saw comedian Maz Jobrani perform on Friday night and he described the tribulations of getting his daughter to bed. he said by the end of it he would be saying, “‘Lord Jesus please make her go to sleep!’ And I’m not even Christian! Moses! Mohammed! Buddha! Bahai! The first God who gets her to go to sleep, I’ll convert!” It’s a good thing we’re already Unitarians.
For her imminent eighth birthday, Zoe has asked for sparring gear (so she can participate in the sparring class at Evolve All, where she takes martial arts), a Jedi robe (in part so she can be Luke Skywalker for Halloween, after having been Princess Leia this past Halloween), action figures from Big Hero 6; and Legos. Oh, and to get her nails done with me.
I don’t know what exactly this means, but she is a far cry from the fairy princess she used to pretend to be. Her favorite books right now are a series about clans of cats that fight each other to establish dominance. When she asked her grandfather to guess what she planned to be for Halloween this year and he said Princess Leia, I reminded him that she had already been Princess Leia, but that he was close. I meant close as in someone else from Star Wars, but he thought I meant another princess, so he said, “someone from Frozen?” Zoe scoffed. She does like Frozen, and we watched it again just last week, but not as much as she loves Star Wars, and she said, “I would never be a princess from Frozen.”
Certainly Zoe still loves her American Girl dolls, and has taught her brother how to properly brush their hair, because he wants to get in on the grooming action. He loves to take care of her babies (and the baby–Sam–that he received for Christmas this past year) and is often stuffing pretend food into their mouths. But Zoe also has her American Girl dolls teach her baby dolls how to do tae kwan do. I think her dad is relieved that the days are over when Zoe wants to play mommy-having-a-baby or be a princess with Randy acting as prince.
She also loves to play board games and word games and sometimes she beats us at Othello and Trivial Pursuit. She loves to draw and she has created a cartoon superhero named Pet Girl, who takes care of lots of animals. She still draws lots of rainbows that say “I love you Mommy.”
She is stubborn and argumentative and has already mastered the teenage glare although she’s still five years away from adolescence. She loses things and doesn’t pay attention and asks over and over for things she know she can’t do or have. But she is also the sweetest big sister who deeply adores her little brother, even though she does get annoyed when he gets into her stuff, which happens all the time. She is thoughtful and compassionate and curious. I love the person she is and the way she is learning to see the world and her place in it. I love that she would rather look in the boys section at Old Navy for Star Wars or soccer t-shirts instead of the girls’ section for Hello Kitty. Although she did wear a sequined panda shirt today that she recently picked out. I love that she wants to wear matching clothes with her brother and take baths with him. And she wants to be elegant and beautiful and go to royal balls and tea parties and try on makeup. I don’t love the makeup. But I get it.
Part of me cringes at the thought of her sparring, and I wouldn’t let her do it if it weren’t part of the instruction at the martial arts school we love so much where they teach you that the black belt attitude is about caring, responsibility, respect, determination, and patience. It’s not about fighting. I imagine the sparring will help build her strength and confidence, which is a good thing for any kid. And you won’t be able to see her manicure underneath the sparring gloves, but her nails will definitely be lovely.
The worst part of last night, at least for me, was not Zeke’s persistent crying and refusal to sleep horizontally (although that was quite unpleasant) but rather the fact that after I plopped a weepy Zeke on our bed with his dogs Kirby and Uh Oh Dog and woke up Randy to keep an eye on him while I used the bathroom, when I turned on the bathroom light I saw a mouse dash out of the bathroom, across the hall, and into my office (also our guest room), which caused me to pee in my pants. I am not typically one of those people who is terrified of mice (although I don’t love them cohabiting with my family) but seeing a mouse vacate the bathroom in our bedroom and relocate to another bedroom, all on the upper floor of our house, where we sleep, does not sit well with me. Suddenly my mind switched from exasperation over Zeke’s restlessness to fear that the mouse (and perhaps his whole family) would be crawling over our faces if we ever did get back to sleep.
A few weeks ago when our family was suffering from round after round of stomach viruses, twice during wakeful, messy nights, I spotted a tiny slug in the corner of the kitchen. The slug’s presence was disconcerting, but not alarming. First of all, it was tiny. Second, it was as slugs are wont to do, moving quite slowly, so I didn’t feel like I had to attend to it immediately. Slugs are notoriously easy to apprehend and Randy removed both slugs to the backyard without incident. This happened in the kitchen and I never once worried that slugs would crawl over our faces as we slept, leaving poisonous trails of slime. But a mouse. Those things are dangerous. Our exterminator told us to use gloves and masks when he reminded us many times to remove the mouse poop from the utility shed behind our house. You’re not going to want to come over for dinner now, are you?
Not that we can have anyone over for dinner these days anyway, because we are always sick or trapped inside by snow and ice. Not really trapped, Boston-style, but stuck inside because where are we going to go when it’s snowy and icy anyway? Our weeks of isolation began on January 29 when Zeke was first struck with norovirus, which he generously shared with all of us in turn. We were supposed to have friends over for dinner a few days later but had to cancel. And every weekend since then, someone has been puking or feverish or something yucky. School has been closed or delayed. I have postponed and rescheduled work meetings and personal appointments and social events over and over again.
When my mind is forced to spend those days (and nights) home with sick kids, or sick husband, or sick me, it tends to wander off toward dark and dismal destinations. I was fairly convinced throughout February that I was a terrible parent, incapable of compassion or patience, and also to blame for everyone’s illnesses. I was sure I didn’t have any real friends and somehow my children and I were being excluded from all fun things that were happening everywhere. I spend a lot of time worrying about all the things anyone could possibly worry about, and then I create some new things to worry about. I embrace my tendency toward worst-case-scenario thinking. Meaning, I am always on some level planning what to do if I need to take someone to the ER or what if someone never comes back from that errand or that trip, or what if we lose power and so many other what ifs that actual reality has no room to exist in my brain. I’ve struggled to figure out how to extract myself from this hole. Everyone I know seems to have crap they’re dealing with, much of it significantly more challenging than mine. Or everyone is just sick. During one of my doctor visits in February, my doctor said there were three groups of people in this area: people who’ve recently been sick, people who are sick now, and people who are going to get sick soon. He said the virus season this winter is the worst he’s seen in a decade. Still, knowing other people are sick does not at all make me feel any better, or even absolve me of responsibility for our germs. We wash our hands all the freaking time. While toddlers are not known for their hygeine habits, even Zeke loves to wash his hands, wipe up spills, and bring out the dustbuster when there’s a spill. We bleach, we wipe down, we spray. And yet the germs circulate and attack us again and again and my mental and emotional state deteriorates. So it’s been hard for me to reach out. I don’t like to complain (maybe you can’t tell that from this post) and I don’t like negativity. I am an optimist. I don’t like whiners. But the past five weeks, which feel more like five months, my sense of hope and positive attitude have diminished. My creativity and confidence have crumbled. I’ve felt increasingly lonely and isolated. I am an extrovert (or to be more accurate, according to my reading of Susan Cain’s work, I’m an ambivert, but still I need some outside stimulation). It’s not been good.
One bright spot during this time has been the sermons by Rev. Aaron McEmrys at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. I’ve been a member of All Souls Unitarian for nearly a decade, but for a variety of reasons it’s become untenable to attend services there. Recently a friend invited Zoe to participate in the sex ed (appropriate for second-graders) segment of the Sunday morning religious education class, so I figured I would go to services while Zoe was in class. I’d been to UUCA a couple times before in years past and found it pleasant but not powerful. This time, though, I was surprised and moved by Rev. Aaron’s preaching. I find his sermons to be thoughtful, challenging, exquisitely written, and passionately delivered. And this week he challenged the congregation to do something fun or frivolous or whatever it was they needed to do to be more resilient–to live more and work less. By example he told physicians in the room to work five fewer hours this week and do something entertaining or fulfilling instead. But he said he didn’t know what we all needed–we did. And what I needed to do was write this. It is embarrassing to say you’ve felt lonely and sad. I was raised not to feel sorry for myself. But sometimes you just need to say how you feel. I also, as a writer, constantly struggle with reluctance to put words out into the world unless they are fully formed and somehow worthy. Unfortunately, I just don’t always feel worthy. But I still need to put words out there before they burn a hole inside me, as they sometimes threaten to do.
So I am praying for spring. For health. For sleep. For the mouse that is upstairs in our house to move out. For a new show to materialize that makes me laugh as much as Parks and Recreation did. For more books like Wonder, which I read in a day sometime in February and would recommend to everyone. And for you, if you are in a hole, to find your way out as well.