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Today our church service was led by members of our worship team, including me. I had the opportunity to share a reflection–like a sermon but shorter. Here’s what I said. If you want to watch, the archived video will be posted here shortly. 

juicy-fruit-gum-stick-i12Think about Juicy Fruit gum. Do you remember what it smells like? To me it smells like the small Methodist church where my Nana and Papa worshiped in High Point, North Carolina. Everyone knew my grandparents—so everyone knew me—and welcomed me warmly when we visited during every school holiday. Mr. McSwain always gave me a piece of Juicy Fruit gum after Sunday school. That gum, my Nana’s white shawl wrapped around me in the pew, her smooth black patent leather pocketbook, from which she extracted a dollar bill for me to put in the offering plate, my great Aunt Millie singing soprano in the choir, and my mom’s favorite cousin Rhonda playing the organ, not to mention my Nana’s rock solid devotion to Jesus, made me feel at home. I belonged.

For me, church and Christianity had everything to do with those warm, comforting feelings and nothing whatsoever to do with theology.

Meanwhile, back at home, my dad was—and still is—Jewish, and we enjoyed celebrating Hanukkah and Passover as a family. But our annual forays to synagogue for high holy days left me confused. I didn’t understand Hebrew and I didn’t know anyone besides my dad. Judaism seemed remote, whereas Christianity was intimate.

So when I was 12, I became Presbyterian. I helped build houses in West Virginia, and taught Vacation Bible School to four-year-olds. For my first college spring break I went to Florida with my Presbyterian fellowship group, not to lie on the beach, but to build a tent city for migrant workers after Hurricane Andrew devastated the town where they lived. After college, when I moved to Arlington, I joined a wonderful Presbyterian church here and met people who I now know are my friends for life. I was chosen to be an elder—even though I was only in my 20s—the equivalent of a member of the board. In all of these churches, I loved the people, the music, and the opportunity to serve. I admit I glossed over some of the words of the traditional prayers, and didn’t dwell on the scripture. I convinced myself it didn’t really matter if I didn’t believe what everyone else did, as long as I felt at home. Then, when I met my husband in 2003, he asked me a lot of tough questions about my theology, and I realized it did matter.

After a bit of searching, I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church—not this one. I was excited to finally find a church whose theology matched mine. Yet, in the middle of that large congregation, I still felt alone. I struggled to find community and a sense of belonging. I made a few friends there, and improbably sang in one of the choirs, but most of the time I came and went on Sunday morning unrecognized, and the big events in our family were dealt with impersonally or went unnoticed by the church.

In January 2015 my friend Dana Cook, who I’ve known since our now nine-year-old daughters attended preschool here together, invited us to UUCA. I told myself I didn’t have to come back if I didn’t like the service, because I was feeling a little down on church, and braced for disappointment.

But leaving worship that morning I was blown away—completely surprised and thrilled by Rev. Aaron’s thoughtful and challenging sermon, and by the warm welcome I had received here. I knew I would return the next Sunday.

In the year and a half since my kids and I started coming to UUCA, we have been fully embraced by the congregation. Here, I can honor my Christian and Jewish roots but still nurture my own theology. I feel confident that what my kids learn here is in keeping with our family’s values and beliefs and that all of us will be enriched by the variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences that members of our community bring with them.

Brené Brown, a researcher and author whose books and TED talk I highly recommend, wrote, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

What’s been transformative about being my whole self here has been the unexpected opportunities I’ve found to be with your whole selves, when you’re making that choice to show up and be real, creating space for the kind of conversations you don’t usually have with strangers.

The first opportunity I found here to cultivate those connections was with the covenant group I agreed to co-facilitate with Mary Pike last fall. I had only met Mary a couple times when she taught my daughter’s RE class. I had no idea how cool or what an intuitive leader she was. I had never even been in a covenant group before. All but one member of the group were strangers to me in October.

But then we spent time together. Exploring what matters to us and why we matter. Sharing our insecurities, fears, hopes, and joys. Revealing our true selves, knowing that we would be fully listened to and heard, and never judged. If you haven’t been part of a covenant group, this might sound ridiculous to you, or even terrifying. But actually, this kind of openness is a balm for the soul.

At our last meeting, we talked about how often we would rush to church for our meetings after a long day, feeling preoccupied or stressed out. But always by the end of our time together, the feeling was relief. Like sinking into your favorite armchair. It is a relief to be able to bring your true self into the room and be seen and loved. Stone by stone, we were dismantling those walls we usually fortify between strangers and ourselves. The walls around our deep truths crumbled, as we felt safe to share with the group.

Another transformative experience I’ve had here has been in the circles of trust retreat series that Rev. Aaron brought to UUCA last fall. Based on the work of Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer, the premise of circles of trust is that everyone has an inner teacher. Whether you call that your heart, soul, spirit, or some other name, it is the source of strength within. As we all know, however, sometimes the noise of our lives can drown out the still, small voice of that inner teacher. Or sometimes we know exactly what our inner teacher is trying to say but we want to cover our ears and squeeze our eyes shut because we don’t want to hear what we know is the truth. So in circles of trust, you spend time reading, writing, thinking, and talking to enable your inner teacher to find its clear, strong voice. Sometimes this requires the help of others.

To help each other hear the inner teacher with greater clarity, what we practice in circles of trust is asking open, honest questions. When someone is brave enough to share a challenge he is facing, we help him find new ways of understanding or looking at the problem without offering advice, trying to fix his problem ourselves, or telling him about when that same thing happened to us. Instead we ask questions that require him to look within. Questions that don’t have yes or no answers. Questions that use metaphors to help him visualize himself and his dilemma in a new way.

The result of this process is we learn about ourselves. We learn what shadows lurk in our spirits and how we can channel our shadow sides, because they are part of who we are. We can’t ignore or deny them. For me, one of those shadows is the need for control. My internal struggle when things don’t go as planned can be intense, but I have come to understand the silver lining of this shadow is a gift for taking care of business. I’ve also learned that, even if I can’t—and shouldn’t—eliminate my shadow, I can work to modulate it. Fortunately I have the opportunity to do that many times a day as a parent, because there’s a lot about raising kids that you can’t control.

We learn about the ways we stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap—the space between what is and what could be, and how to hold that tension with as much grace as we can muster, even though we might be tempted to just run away. For me the tragic gap appears both locally and globally. I stand in the tragic gap whenever I don’t talk to my kids the way I should. This often happens in those moments I mentioned earlier when I cannot control their behavior, which is to say, most moments.

I stand in the tragic gap when I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I am angry about the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed by our broken justice system, uncertain if creating a fair justice system is even possible, yet still inspired by the dedication of Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative.

Exploring ways to handle these tensions and contradictions, and even simply learning the vocabulary to identify them, has been transformative. When was the last time you faced a problem at home, at school, at work, or at church that had a quick and easy answer? To reach real and thoughtful solutions we have to ask good questions. Open, honest questions. Of ourselves and each other.

Not surprisingly, in the course of asking these open, honest questions, we learn about each other. Really learn about each other. We see each other’s true selves and hear each other’s truths. And just as the members of my covenant group experienced, it brings a feeling of relief. Your problems may not be solved. The world’s problems are definitely not solved. But you are not alone. You are held, accepted, and loved for who you are. You belong. That sense of belonging, the profound comfort in a world that can be so uncomfortable, is transformative. When I am truly seen and heard, I am vastly more capable of truly seeing and hearing you. Then I can share with you a measure of that comfort and that belonging.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.36.00 PMMy daughter is finishing a book in bed, reading with her book light while her brother sleeps on the other side of the room. This fills me with such delight I do not care how late she stays up. It helps that today is the last day of school, and there is nowhere she needs to be in the morning. I have turned off my 6:30am weekday alarm until September. My husband pointed out this morning that I never get up at 6:30 anyway. But that’s when I am supposed to get up, and that’s when I need to begin the process of gradually waking up and hitting snooze until it is absolutely necessary to get out of bed and start the day.

I am thankful there will be no more late passes until the fall. When Zoe and I looked at her end-of-year report card today at lunch I noticed that her teacher, or the school, or some benevolent being, didn’t even count her tardies for the fourth quarter, which were numerous. Only some of them were her fault. A few were mine. Many were caused by her brother needing to poop at the precise moment we’re walking out the door. Now he can poop any time of the morning that he pleases, because who cares if you’re late to camp?

Speaking of pooping, we are done with diapers! This feels miraculous to me, a day I was never quite sure would arrive. I discovered with Zeke that having a kid potty train when he has a fully functioning bladder is not so bad. I have a greater appreciation for Zoe’s years of struggle with a recalcitrant bladder and immense gratitude that it went so smoothly for Zeke. Now all we have to do every morning is pick out which superhero underwear he wants to wear. Tonight we discussed whether Superman wears underwear with little pictures of Zeke on it. He said Superman’s underwear also has pictures of Zoe and me on it. I guess that makes sense, since some of Zeke’s underwear has Superman, Batman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. So when Amazon delivers underwear to Metropolis, perhaps it’s the Rosso Family variety pack.

After Zoe and I and a few hundred students and parents from her school watched all the teachers and staff do their song and dance numbers after dismissal, one of my favorite traditions at Zoe’s school, we went out to eat so I could have lunch and Zoe could have pie while we pored over the last day contents of her backpack, including several more items that her teacher gave away to the kids so she wouldn’t have to pack them up today because the school renovation starts Monday. Zoe already came home bearing a dictionary, an atlas, and several other books she was thrilled to have “won” in class. Her teacher is quite clever.

Then at Zoe’s suggestion we went to a paint-your-own-pottery studio and made mosaics, which we had never done there before. We had a lovely, meditative time together, which we always do when we make art. She also painted a bowl. They sent us home with grouting kits to use to finish the mosaics in 48 hours when the glue dries. I have never grouted before. Exciting!

Finally, I am thankful that the three of us enjoyed an unprecedentedly peaceful dinner tonight at Silver Diner, which I allowed Zoe to choose in celebration of the last day of school and her great report card. We went after her martial arts class, and after I let the kids run around the turf room at martial arts fighting with swords made of pool noodles, and after Zeke totally averted a tantrum on his own when Zoe handed him a plain noodle instead of one with Superman duct tape on it, and after we talked with Zoe’s instructor about what’s required of her to earn her red solid belt at the end of the summer, and after we got snow cones (blue raspberry, cherry, and grape for Zoe; pineapple and strawberry for Zeke and me to share) from the truck in the Evolve All parking lot because I had promised the kids last week we would get them tonight. So really you can see we went to dinner quite late and given all that I fully expected any or all of us to meltdown, but we didn’t! Everyone ate all of their food. Zoe discovered she liked asparagus after eating it accidentally thinking it was green beans. We even got milkshakes (yes, I was super indulgent today–whatever) and the waitress brought Zeke a sthamiltonbroadway10rawberry instead of a chocolate but he decided he liked it anyway–another chance for a tantrum that didn’t happen! We listened and sang along to Hamilton at top volume in the car on the way
home, showered, and no one argued about anything. Zeke asked me to sing “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Helpless” in the shower but I couldn’t remember all the words, even though we’ve listened to it a gazillion times.

Seriously, this is all true. I know it sounds extraordinary. I didn’t yell at anyone all day. The kids didn’t fight. It was awesome. Of course now Zoe comes in and says she feels ill, which is probably because I let her have so many treats today. So, perhaps my fault. But otherwise it was such a lovely, peaceful day. You really need one of those every now and then.

 

 

imagesAs we prepared to bury three goldfish in the backyard this afternoon, I thought about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I read in 11th grade and remember only bits and pieces of, but enough to picture a homemade coffin and grotesque family dynamics related to the family matriarch. By contrast, I dug a shallow grave in the mulch and dirt under the pathetic frozen hydrangea bush. I laid to rest Dumbledore (the fish, not the wizard), who had been stored in a small cardboard box within a ziplock bag since his untimely death on January 4, just 11 days after he and his fish friends Mad-Eye Moody and Tonks were given to Zoe for Christmas by Aunt Susannah and Uncle Aaron. The fish and their home were her favorite Christmas present. She had asked for fish for Christmas but revealed to me after the fact that she did not actually expect to receive any.

We thought Dumbledore died from too much poop in the fish tank, so we thoroughly cleaned the tank after he died. We journeyed to PetSmart to find a successor but instead bought new rocks and plastic plants for the tank. The fish woman at the pet store said goldfish are not really meant to be pets. They’re meant to feed larger fish or swim in ponds, she suggested. Perhaps that’s why they cost 15 cents each, or something like that. We learned that all the other fish available at PetSmart are not compatible with goldfish because goldfish can live in cold water, and the other fish need heat. So Zoe and I decided that we would continue to care for Tonks and Mad-Eye until they outgrew their tank or died.

We did not expect that death would come so soon, just two weeks later. Because of what happened to Dumbledore we were proactive in cleaning the tank on Monday night, before it was noticeably poop-ridden. Speaking of poop, Zoe had observed that each fish in turn was constipated. I had not known this was a problem that beset goldfish but it is. Zoe brought home a book from the school library about goldfish care that instructed us to feed the fish tiny bits of lettuce or oats if they were constipated. Randy and I each chopped up some lettuce and Zoe conscientiously fed it to the fish as needed until their GI tracts were clear.

So when we cleaned the tank, we did all the same stuff as before, except for whatever we did differently, because in the morning Tonks and Mad-Eye were floating awkwardly instead of swimming jauntily as they had been for the past two weeks.

Zoe was distraught. The night Dumbledore died she sat in my lap and cried for a while (probably also because she and Randy had just returned from an exciting adventure in Florida with her paternal grandparents and she was coming down from that). She apologized the next morning for crying and I told her she was entitled to cry and there was no reason to apologize.

So this morning she was even more distraught, and cried in my arms again for a while. I called school and told them she would be late. All she was missing was PE. I emailed her teacher to alert her to Zoe’s disposition. After school today, in the bitter wind and 25 degree temperatures, we held the fish funeral. I said thank you to the fish for being Zoe’s first pets, and for contributing to the soil so flowers could grow, and said that I hoped they were swimming happily in fish heaven. I held Zoe’s hand. She cried. She said goodbye. Later, inside, she told me there was more she wanted to say but she couldn’t because she was crying, so she said it in her head. I told her she could still say it, to me, or she could write it down, or she could just keep it in her heart.

Now the tank is empty. The light is off. The filter is quiet. It’s too cold to buy new fish right now and we’re expecting a massive snowstorm this weekend. I told Zoe this would be a good opportunity to research some heartier aquarium fish and–more importantly–how to take care of them. The fish were possibly a starter pet as we considered small mammals for the future–perhaps a pair of guinea pigs? But we’ve got to improve our fish skills before bringing anyone furry into the house.

When I was a kid I had a series of goldfish. I don’t even remember how many. One of them–who I know was named Patrick–jumped out of the bowl and I found him lying on the carpet of my bedroom when I got home from school. I couldn’t understand what had prompted him to try to escape. I buried them all in matchboxes in the backyard. I don’t remember my parents helping, but maybe they did. I don’t remember crying, but probably I did.

Today I could tell that Zoe’s heart was breaking, even though they were only fish, and even though she had known them for less than a month. They were her first pets. They were wholly hers. And she loved them.

playgroundZoe has been complaining more and more about the paltry 20 minutes of recess she is granted at school every day. I suggested she write a letter to the superintendent and the school board and her principal expressing her concern about the lack of outdoor time and her desire for change. I shared with her some facts about how outdoor time benefits kids intellectually, emotionally, and of course physically, that I had learned in my own research for something I’m writing. I told her I would help with the mechanics of the letter but that the ideas and the words had to be hers.

We brainstormed tonight–I asked her questions about how she felt before, during, and after recess and she wrote notes. Then she dictated the letter to me. I looked up the addresses for her and she wrote them on the envelopes. She’s very excited to send her letters off tomorrow. At bedtime she whispered, “Do you think they’ll actually change the amount of recess we have?” I said I didn’t know, but you never know until you ask.

Here’s her letter:

Dear Dr. Murphy,

My name is Zoe Rosso and I’m a third grader at A******** Elementary. I really love my school. We have great teachers. I have tons of friends. My favorite subjects are math, reading, and science. I love almost everything about my school except that we only have 20 minutes of recess.

If I don’t run every day my legs start to feel weird like I have to move around. I need more than 20 minutes to get enough exercise. I love to climb and hang upside down. Climbing exercises my brain and muscles and improves my strength. There are very few things that you can do outside that you can do inside.

When I’m outside, I feel great. I feel like this because the outdoors never end. It’s just a big open space—a big field of fresh air and fun. Also before I go outside I can get bored, but when I come in after recess I am really into the subject. Being in fresh air helps me to focus in class. When I don’t go outside I start to get really tired of just sitting around. When you sit around it can make it much harder for you to think.

Being outside helps me to relax and stop worrying about things. Being outside also makes me feel good because I get to run around and play with my friends and it doesn’t really matter how loud or quiet I am. Many of my friends are in different classes than me so at recess I get to see and play with them. I am also not allowed to run in the hall, but outside there is no hall.

It would be wonderful if we could have more recess. Please consider increasing recess for elementary school students.

Sincerely,

Zoe Rosso

Our leaf collageYesterday, in the middle of watching Project Wild Thing, a fun yet serious British documentary about the dramatic causes and effects of today’s generation of kids spending so little time in nature, I decided to turn off the tv and take the kids to the park. Seriously. And not just the playground, but the woods. Yes, there’s a paved path, but there are also lots of trees and rocks and a large meandering creek that invites kids to explore it.

Sure it was about to get dark, but I didn’t let that stop us. Zoe didn’t want to go, but I dragged her off the couch. After hearing what filmmaker David Bond had to say, building on what I learned from another stunning documentary–School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, I felt a certain urgency to be outside with my family, especially after we’d been cooped up for a few days while it rained. But it wasn’t raining anymore, so we went.

The path was covered with wet leaves that had fallen from dozens of different kinds of trees, none of which I could identify. But I observed the diversity and my kids picked up some leaves to bring home. “We can do art!” I exclaimed, remembering how Zeke’s preschool teachers had the kids painting leaves last week. I am always the kind of mom who wants to do nature art but rarely the kind who makes it happen. I am more likely to get irritated when doing the laundry at the pieces of outside that wind up inside, stuffed into my kids’ pockets.

Instead last night I was collecting the leaves in my pockets, trying to keep them smoothed out so we could make a collage with them later. As we walked, Zeke inevitably picked up and brandished sticks. He and Zoe threw some rocks into the creek. We reminded Zeke to throw small rocks, and not to throw them in the direction of Zoe. Eventually Zeke and Randy went back up to the path while Zoe and I ventured further into the creek. We were wearing our boots. I only just bought rain boots last week. I hadn’t owned any for decades. We climbed and maneuvered and squelched in the mud.

Zoe pointed out a boulder that had a hole running through it and we took turns rolling a pebble though. Then she saw what she thought was a carving on another rock but then realized it was my wet boot print. I told Zoe it was gettinIn the creekg dark and we needed to get back to the path, but she wanted, not surprisingly, to go a little deeper. She waded over to a tree that had fallen across the creek and hoisted herself up onto it and shimmied across to the upended root system and up onto the bank. I held out my arm to her, but she said, “No, I don’t want you to help me.” She wanted to challenge herself, as usual.

In the midst of this activity, Zoe said, “you can’t be a Rosso if you don’t like adventure.” How great it is that she thinks that, I thought, even though I have never really thought of myself as adventurous, at least in the outdoors. In these nature documentaries people my age talk about how when they were growing up they were always playing outside. It was just a given. When I was growing up, my given was reading. I could read inside or out, but I was pretty much always reading. I played with my friends and I definitely went to the park, went roller skating, and rode bikes. But I also got teased for my lack of natural athletic ability and I didn’t like heat or bug bites. In fourth grade a classmate told me that I sweated too much. So I was kind of flattered that Zoe thought of our family as adventurous. I felt like I’d earned an adventure badge in mom scouts.

So while I certainly appreciate nature and enjoy being outside and all that, in a general sense, I still don’t think of myself as an outdoor type. But I do think of myself as a writer, and as a good mom, and an engaged parent. Last year Susan Parker, the director of our fantastic preschool asked me if I would be interested in writing something about the outdoor classroom program that she and AUCP teachers had piloted, modeled on the forest kindergarten highlighted in School’s Out. This is Arlington and we are progressive but still we like things the way we like them, so the idea was to take one class of kids to spend the whole preschool day (three hours) in the woods every couple weeks. Timber Tuesdays and Forest Fridays were born, and in the first year it seemed to pour rain or snow every Tuesday and Friday of the winter. But the kids were undaunted, and the adults made sure to match their spirit and wear extra layers. Zeke’s not old enough to do this yet (the program focuses on three-, four-, and five-year-olds) but I heard all about it and Susan shared with me how thrilled she was to be seeing what the kids could do outside. “It’s all there!” she said. Dramatic play, reading, science, critical thinking, negotiating skills, leadership development. She said kids who struggled in the classroom tended to shine outdoors and some who were stars sitting inside were pushed a little out of their comfort zones in the woods, forcing them to learn new skills. Susan handed me stacks of studies and articles about the positive effects on kids’ mental and physical health of being outside, or the dangers of not enough outside exploration. When kids are outside more, exploring the natural world, they are less likely to

  • struggle with gross or fine motor skill development
  • have ADHD
  • be obese

In fact, Project Wild Thing‘s David Bond said this generation of children is the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, which he (and presumably scientists he cites) attribute to a more sedentary lifestyle. People in hospitals heal faster when they can look out the window at nature, he said.

I’ve been working on the article, although I still haven’t found someone to publish it yet, but the process has been inspiring. Even just hearing about what goes on in the woods on Timber Tuesdays and Forest Fridays has inspired me to be more patient, and even more encouraging, when my kids want to splash in puddles or dig in mud or collect acorns or climb rocks. And it makes me want to do those things too. Maybe not so much the mud, but definitely the other ones.

When we got home from the park, by which point it was completely dark, I found a piece of cardboard and two bottles of glue. I made Zoe promise that she would let Zeke glue the leaves the way he wanted to, even if it conflicted with her artistic vision. She agreed and they collaborated beautifully. Glue was everywhere, but that’s ok. I still don’t know what kind of leaves we found, but that’s ok too. That’s an activity for another time. As is watching the rest of the film, which I am eager to do. Right now, I’m just glad we squeezed some time outside into our day.

UPDATE ON 10/6/15

My friend Kevin kindly identified most of the leaves we found!

leaf ID

louseWhile I hate to keep Zoe home from school when it’s only the second week, I also don’t think she’ll be in much shape to learn anything tomorrow morning at 8 when she went to sleep just before midnight. Why did she stay up until midnight on a Monday night, you ask? The answer is a repugnant four-letter word: LICE.

Most nights after she showers, Zoe asks me to comb her hair, and tonight when I was combing I observed some small, unwelcome creatures crawling on her scalp. After Randy had taken Zeke upstairs to bed, I told Zoe that I thought she had lice, and she started weeping. I called my mom for advice. I tried to calm Zoe down but I also felt like the need to expunge the bugs was rather urgent. I combed and she cried. I texted friends whose children I knew had dealt with lice. After Randy came downstairs I dispatched him to the drugstore to buy some lice-repellent product. Zoe asked if I was going to be combing her hair for the rest of her life, and I said, yes, I would be combing her hair when she breaks her board this Saturday at the martial arts growth ceremony, and when she goes to the prom, and as she’s walking down the aisle during her wedding. She added that I would be combing her hair while she was giving birth to her first child, and then while she was combing her own child’s hair. By then she was laughing instead of crying.

I did the treatment. Randy stripped the bed and sprayed it with some magic lice-be-gone spray. I did the second treatment and combed again and made the bed. I put most of the stuffed animals in the wash and some pillows in a trash bag where they’re supposed to live until the lice suffocate and die. I inspected Eve, Zoe’s doll who cannot go into the wash, and she looked clean. I didn’t feel like giving her the treatment. Also she doesn’t have hair.

It’s Randy’s birthday too. Fortunately we celebrated yesterday, as tonight was not especially festive. Exciting, sure. Festive, maybe not. Although yesterday was also exciting when the cake we made for Randy caught fire in the oven (marshmallows on top) and Randy blew it out and made a really big wish. That was festive AND exciting.

Before the discovery of the bugs tonight, Zeke had mysteriously melted down at dinner. He burst into tears because Randy cut up his broccoli too small, so he could eat it. He wanted big broccoli. This might not sound crazy, but Zeke doesn’t usually get upset about such things. He usually spends dinner either eating his food, spilling it on himself, or trying to make us laugh. I guess he had a long day. We went to the meet and greet at his preschool today so he could check out his classroom and spend a few minutes of quality time with his teacher. On the way into the school he was so excited that he started sprinting across the parking lot and fell down and scraped up his knees. They were still hurting him at bedtime. We tried to assuage him with Muppet band-aids. So Zeke was feeling a little fragile all day, although when I strapped him into his carseat as we were leaving preschool he had tears welling up in his eyes and I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Nothing. Happy.” Perhaps even he didn’t know what was wrong. But he seems to love his teacher, who was once Zoe’s teacher and as a result greeted Zeke by name last year when she saw him in passing. I didn’t know he even noticed or remembered her, but when I introduced her to him as his new teacher he leaped into her arms and gave her a hug like they were long-lost buddies. It is possible he doesn’t understand why he keeps going to school for brief periods of time only to have to leave again just when he’s getting going. Thursday is his first real day. Hopefully it will be satisfying for all of us.

The report on third grade: so far so good. Zoe says her teacher is awesome. She is thrilled to have a locker, for which she shopped for decorations this past weekend. I still haven’t gotten a lot of concrete details about anything she’s learning, but she’s seemed happy every day when I’ve picked her up, so I’ll take that. Except today when I picked her up, I asked how her day went, and she said she spent most of it worrying. This afternoon she had her green solid belt test at Evolve All, where she had to demonstrate the exercises, techniques, and understanding that green solid belt martial artists are supposed to master. She was nervous. She said Master Emerson reminded her last week that it’s good to be nervous because it means it matters. During the test I kept Zeke entertained with puzzles and snacks and a blue car we rolled to each other, while I watched Zoe out of one eye. She did awesome. I can see how much confidence and poise she’s gained over the past year, even though she still gets nervous. She passed. She wasn’t as pleased with herself as I expected, but she stood on her head in the turf room for a bit afterwards, which always seems to make her happy. Now onto the board break on Saturday. I will remind her again then as I did today, what Rev. Aaron said in his sermon on Sunday, “We got this.”

So watch out, lice. Move on out. We have our combs and our creams. We can run our washer and dryer all night if we have to. We got this.

Zeke art

Zeke’s original art, made for me in Panda class

In real life not every special day turns out perfectly, and not every moment is worthy of photographing. But my Mother’s Day weekend did include plenty of mothering, which is something to be thankful for.

Zeke has had a fever since Friday afternoon, which translates into a lot of intense snuggling. Not that you ever want your child to be sick, but the snuggling is not so bad. Even when he wakes up from an intense nap, during which he has burrowed so intensely into me that we are covered in sweat and possibly his pee, I don’t even realize what’s happened or particularly mind. I’ve had plenty worse bodily fluids showered upon me by my children. Sometimes, even years after the spit-up phase has ended, I have to change my shirt two or three times in a day when a special mixture of tears, snot, and drool saturates it.

Zeke card

Zeke’s card, made for me in Panda class. His teacher’s translation: “I love you!”

Or sometimes I have to change my shirt because I sweat through Zoe’s activities, like her soccer game yesterday afternoon, which ended up being a massive defeat, so much so that her team was invited to bring an extra player on the field at some point. It was a hot day and her team was missing a few subs and we were in full sun, but I stayed on the sidelines (along with my dad, another loyal fan) to high five Zoe every time she came off the field and hand her a water bottle. I often sweat through her martial arts classes, even though they’re indoors and not because I’m doing martial arts, but because the studio can get stuffy with all those kids kicking and punching and running and I am sprinting around after Zeke for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on how many classes Zoe has that day. Zeke’s usual state is in motion, which is why it’s all the more surprising when he’s sick and wants to be still.

So this morning I couldn’t go to church because I couldn’t bring Zeke to the nursery with a fever and Randy had to take Zoe to a learn to ride a bike class we’d signed up for months ago. There was no breakfast in bed because Zoe was rushing around to get ready to go this morning. Fortunately our church streams services live online, so I was able to watch at home. At first Zeke was watching with me, and even said “church” a few times, which was a new word for him. (He also learned the word “boob” this weekend because he kept poking mine and giggling when I said “hey! don’t touch my boob!”) He pointed at the people on the screen and I explained who they were a few dozen times. Then he snuggled up to sleep while I watched the rest of the service and wept. I cried during the song that the director of religious education sang about mothering people whose own mothers just weren’t good enough, and during the rendition of “For Good” from Wicked. And when Rev. Aaron talked about the cards that he and an artist in the congregation developed for members in the congregation hand out to people to show that we recognize the divine in each other. And when he talked about his Tibetan friend who was identified as a rinpoche–a reincarnated spirit–at age three and who went to live in the Buddhist monastery and whose family had no idea they would never see him again. And I wept some more at the end of the service when he invited some children up to make the Tibetan singing bowls sing.

A little while after the service ended and my tears subsided, Zeke woke up and I decided to give him a bath. He requested bubbles and we had fun throwing animals into the air, listening to them plop into the water and disappear under the bubbles. After a while Zeke had the idea to put some bubbles on me, and he gently scooped up bubbles and arrayed them on my arms. Then he decided I needed to get clean too. He took the extra washcloth that I had gotten out in case he wanted to wash himself, and he squirted soap on it, and dipped it in the water to get it wet, and washed one of my arms, and then the other. It was kind of like Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, but the two-year-old and his mom version. With bubbles.

I didn’t want to leave Zeke to go to the planned Mother’s Day celebration at my parents’ house, and I didn’t want to share his germs with his cousin, but Randy insisted that Zeke would be fine with him and that Zoe and I should go. We arrived late, and on my parents’ back porch, Zoe shared with everyone the Mother’s Day gifts that she and Zeke and Randy had given me. My favorite was the letter she had written to me in school. The past few weeks have been more exasperating and exhausting than usual, as we’ve faced epic tantrums from Zeke and have been helping Zoe address some physical challenges. All of us have been a little crankier and more fragile than usual. Randy has been by my side every night, united on the parenting front. He has typically been the only one who has been able to finally subdue Zeke into sleep at the end of the long night. But there has also been the blowing of bubbles, and the drawing of chalk pictures on the patio, and the doing of many puzzles.

So there’s been a lot of mothering. And moments when I had to go outside and sit on the front step in my pajamas late at night before I completely lost my mind. But then there’s this. Deep, slobbery snuggles, and “always remember that you are my star.”

Zoe letter page 1 Zoe letter

imagesAt her annual ophthalmological checkup today, the eye doctor confirmed what I had suspected, that Zoe has convergence insufficiency. Actually I didn’t know that particular phenomenon was the problem, but I knew something was wrong. Zoe loves books and reads at a high level, but in recent months I had noticed her gravitating back to picture books instead of reading chapter books when given the opportunity. And I had observed that after the 20 minutes of required homework reading Zoe would often claim she was exhausted or had a headache. I knew something wasn’t right.

So I made a two-hour appointment (not covered by insurance and not cheap) with a developmental optometrist after hearing about a girl who sounded a lot like Zoe who was a capable but reluctant reader because of a previously undiagnosed vision problem. Then I filled out an extensive inventory of Zoe’s health and academic history and asked her teacher to complete another form.

Meanwhile Zoe became obsessed with a series of books called Warriors, about tribes of cats who fight each other (I don’t get it at all, but that’s another story). She devoured the first book and I thought maybe her reading reluctance was a passing phase. Her teacher filled out the form and said she didn’t notice anything amiss about Zoe’s work in class or behavior while reading. So I cancelled the appointment. And I figured that since we had her checkup scheduled for today, if there was anything wrong, the doctor would find it.

And she did. Apparently this problem is quite common and just as treatable. Surprisingly, the convergence insufficiency is hereditary, but Zoe didn’t get it from Randy, who has a history of strabismus, but from me. The doctor said many people are walking around with it but have never had any symptoms or problems. She did a quick check and said I definitely have it and could not blame Randy this time.

The cure for Zoe’s convergence insufficiency is eye exercises, which she can do with the help of a computer program, and reading glasses. I was thrilled to hear this seemingly simple remedy. Zoe was not. Our conversation on the way out of the doctor’s office went like this.

Zoe: “I am not happy about this. I do not want glasses. I never thought I would have to get glasses. I’ll look different.”

Me: “I’m sorry you’re not happy. You will look great with glasses. We’ll pick out some really cool ones. And I’m surprised you never thought you would have to get glasses because I’ve had glasses since I was in fourth grade and Daddy used to have to wear glasses so it was pretty inevitable that you would end up with glasses at some point. Besides, glasses are cool. Remember in Heidi Heckelbeck where Heidi’s friend got glasses and she was jealous because her friend looked so great, and she pretended to have bad vision so she could get her own glasses?”

Zoe: “I’m not the same as Heidi Heckelbeck. First of all, I’m not a witch.” [Heidi Heckelbeck is a witch, of the friendly Harry Potter and Hermione Granger variety]

Me: “That is true, you are not a witch.”

Zoe: “I do not want glasses.”

We went to the drugstore because the eye doctor had advised us to get a pair of over-the-counter reading glasses to see if they helped Zoe before investing in a pair of custom prescription glasses.

As soon as we found the glasses rack in the drugstore, Zoe was excited, drawn toward the animal print cases and sparkly frames. I found a pair with the right magnification and handed them to her to try on.

Zoe: “Wow! I can see so much better!” She tried on at least a dozen pairs and we took pictures. She got even more excited when she saw another rack of options that also included a shelf of colorful cases, which were free with a purchase of reading glasses. She started picking out a case to match the pairs of glasses she was considering. I told her to find the right glasses first and then we could find a case.

Finally she settled on red frames with blue earpieces and some shiny blue dots on the front. They are too big for her face because they’re adult glasses, but they’re ok for a trial run. And she loves them. On the way out of the drugstore.

Zoe: “I love my glasses. They are so cool. I can’t wait to show everyone. My friends will be so surprised. Zeke won’t know what to think. I can’t wait to show Daddy. When we get the real glasses can I get a hard case? Can I buy a cloth to polish them with? Can I wear them in the car? These glasses are so cool.”

At home I asked Zoe to read a few pages of her Star Wars novel without the glasses and with them and tell me what was different. “The words were so big and so easy to read,” she said. Well there you go. We’ll see what happens this week, and when we get the eye exercise program. But convergence sufficiency seems promising. And this is a good reminder that as a parent you should always trust your gut. Even an articulate seven-year-old can’t tell you that her eye muscles aren’t working together and that reading makes her eyes tired. I can’t wait to see what opens up for her when all those interesting words become bigger and easier to read.

04277121_zi_blue_silverLast night around 6, when I was waiting for a friend to pick Zoe up for tae kwan do because I didn’t want to bring Zeke because he was coughing and his shoes were soaking wet because I let him stomp in a puddle when we were picking up Zoe from school and when we got home I discovered the dryer, which we just paid $400 to get repaired, was screeching mercilessly whenever I turned it on, I started feeling panicky. I was upstairs waiting by the window with Zoe to spot her ride when it arrived while downstairs Zeke had found a tray of Christmas treats Zoe had left out, and was stuffing chocolate covered peanuts in his mouth. When I ran downstairs to find him, there was a blend of saliva and chocolate seeping all over his face and clothes and his mouth was full of unchewed peanuts because he still doesn’t have that many teeth. He had also managed to open Zoe’s Finding Nemo DVD that she received for Hanukkah the night before and had somehow smeared it with chocolate as well. I wiped off his face and yanked off his shirt and fleece and went to put them in the bucket that we soak stained things in but discovered I had left it outside on the patio and it needed to be washed. And I couldn’t wash it because the sink was full of dirty dishes and bottle parts because even though Zeke will drink water from a cup he still refuses to drink milk unless it’s in a bottle.

I was short of breath, my chest was tight, I felt nauseated and dizzy. I have a friend just a few years older than me who had a heart attack last year. Someone else my age with whom I graduated from college died this year from one. And one of Randy’s grad school classmates just died from a possible heart attack. I was increasingly panicked. I looked up the signs of a heart attack and a panic attack and found several websites that said the symptoms are remarkably similar. How helpful!

When Randy got home he dropped me off at urgent care. I should have just gone to the ER. The people at urgent care did not demonstrate any sense of urgency whatsoever. The receptionists and the physician’s assistant all seemed bored and completely uninterested in their jobs or the fact that people they were helping might have some sort of problem. They acted like they had been hired for jobs at lackadaisical care. The PA greeted me with, “So are you having a heart attack?” I told her I didn’t know what was wrong, that’s why I was there. Later when she was doing the EKG and tears were streaming down my face she repeatedly told me to relax. Oh ok. Thanks for the advice. The doctor, who was at least friendly, said I was fine and there wasn’t really anything he could do for me, as my heart and lungs and blood pressure were normal. He asked if there was anything stressful going on in my life. I didn’t even know where to start. I offered, “I have two young kids…” He said something like, is that all? I didn’t go into the running my own business thing or the fact that it’s Christmas and Hanukkah and so many things are undone or the fact that tragedies local and global are constantly breaking my heart and assaulting my soul. He asked if I wanted anything to calm me down, like a Xanax. I declined, as I have attempted to use Xanax in the past and even in small doses it makes me feel drunk and unable to function. Calm, sure, but not really worth it.

So the good news is I didn’t have a heart attack. The list of things to do remains long and the stacks of stuff to deal with are piled high. I am struggling to resist the urge to climb back into bed with my book–The Gravity of Birds–which is so good. In the meantime, I will listen to John Denver and the Muppets and try to get back to work, and be thankful that my heart is good.

resilienceIt is hard to talk about your children’s failures, whether they are large or small. On social media you can brag about your kids, demonstrate their silliness or cuteness, and it’s definitely acceptable to discuss how they are making you crazy. But rarely do parents share when their kids mess up.

And in this era of what seems to me like excessive parenting, which I’m sure I’m guilty of it sometimes, it seems parents are reluctant to allow their kids to mess up. No one wants to see their kid fail, so it’s easy to try to swoop in and remove obstacles and provide extra support and do whatever you can to ensure your kid succeeds. Certainly as parents it’s our job to help our kids succeed as much as we can, but I realize that is not the same as not letting them fail. There is a subtle but importance distinction.

Yesterday Zoe took a test in her martial arts class to determine if she would be able to move up to the next belt level. She has been working toward this moment for about six months. She has learned upper body, core, and lower body exercises. She has mastered hand techniques, kicking techniques, and her martial arts form (a rapid sequence of kicks, punches, and blocks). And she has contemplated what virtue she could most improve upon and why.

This level of testing is the hardest she has encountered in her two years of practicing martial arts, because it is the first level of elements in the advanced class–the solid belts. She has struggled occasionally with techniques over the past two years, but this time around, the techniques have really been tough. But she is motivated and she has practiced and practiced and practiced at home, and she’s figured it out. Her instructors are kind and patient and encouraging and have provided constant support, often staying after class at her request to help her hone her techniques. That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t experienced many small failures. The steps toward getting each new belt are obtaining a stripe on your belt that indicates your mastery of a particular technique. Students typically test for their stripes when the instructor or the student thinks they are ready, but they sometimes fail. Maybe even often. Maybe other students seldom fail, but Zoe doesn’t usually get her stripe on the first try. Sometimes it takes two or three. The instructors are very demanding. If your moves are not sharp and powerful, or your toes aren’t pointed, or you’re going too fast and lack precision, you don’t pass. They want to make sure you get it right. They always provide constructive critiques and generous encouragement to the students who have failed.

Usually when she gets to the stage of the belt test, which is a big deal, she’s got it all covered. Yesterday afternoon she was exceptionally nervous. She said she wasn’t sure if she could do it. I told her I knew she could. I have also been telling her for weeks that whatever happens, I am proud of how hard she has worked and proud of her for sticking to it. I knew this was not a sure thing. A few weeks ago I told her that whether she advanced to the next belt now or in a few months, I would still be proud of her, and either way she would still be moving toward her goal, which she says is to become a black belt and a student instructor. I struggle sometimes with making sure martial arts is her thing and not my thing. I try to motivate her to practice without nagging. Sometimes I am more successful than others. But I know how good she feels after she practices and I love seeing her face light up when she knows she has turned the corner and really knows what she’s doing.

So she took the test yesterday and she performed her techniques well. I didn’t see most of them because I was chasing Zeke around the studio, but Randy was watching. He left work early to see her test, at her request. After all the kids had tested, the instructors called each student up individually to discuss his or her scores. Zoe was the last of 12.

Because of her nervousness, when she said that the virtue she should improve upon is timeliness, and they asked her to explain it, she froze and couldn’t remember what to say. She knows what timeliness is. She explained it perfectly in class on Saturday, to the same instructor. She has practiced her answer at home with me more than a dozen times.

But somehow yesterday the answer wouldn’t come. That happens to all of us sometimes. At least it does to me.

So she failed the test, even though the instructor said she did great at everything else.

Fortunately she has an opportunity to take the test again on Friday. She will have to do everything all over again.

I realize that this may not sound at all like a big deal. There are no lasting consequences. It’s an enriching activity, not the Olympic trials. This is not going on her permanent record. But to her it’s a big deal. She has been working so hard toward this for months. And months to a seven-year-old can seem like years.

But she handled it well. She was disappointed, but she bounced back. We discussed possible options for helping her to practice and memorize her answer so it would come to her as easily as the techniques that she has engrained into her muscle memory. She was open to my suggestions.

On the back of one of her martial arts shirts it says RESILIENCE. It’s funny because it’s not like they say to your kids when they walk into the martial arts studio, “you are going to fail, so get used to it.” This is not boot camp. They are not cruel. But they know that the kids will struggle and they will fail and that when they finally master something and it all clicks and they succeed it will mean so much more to them. Master Emerson, the head instructor and owner of the studio, has said something to this effect to them many times. And if you can struggle and fail and persevere and not give up, it is indeed that much sweeter when you come out on top.

At the growth ceremony where the students break their boards for the final part of their tests and then are awarded their next belts, there is a lot of communal inhaling and exhaling. They call the kids up in small groups and they practice a few times with targets and then everyone counts down from three to prepare the students to break their boards. Many kids break them on the first try and there is wild cheering and applause. Some kids take a couple tries. Still more cheering and applause. And some kids take five or six or more times to break the boards. Once it took Zoe seven tries. So much tension. So much. Whether it’s your kid or someone else’s, because everyone knows that feeling. And when the student finally breaks that board after so many tries, there is seriously wild cheering and applause. That is a hard-earned victory.

Zoe does not give up. I am so immensely proud of her for this. Like anyone else, she may need a moment to collect herself, to feel all those hard feelings, and then she gets up and tries again. Enabling her to cultivate this quality is so important. The number one thing I want to teach my kids is to be kind, but after that this trait of resilience is high on the list. Whether you’re in second grade or in college or out in the complicated world in which we live, there will always be challenges coming at you, and sometimes they will knock you flat. If Zoe can continue to get back up again and start over, she will survive.

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