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joe merritt art-2

Some of Joe Merritt’s art

 

 

Yesterday at church I shared a reflection on resilience.

You can read it below, or watch the video of the service here (Click on archives and the service called What Freedom Is For) or watch it here.

Reading it is fine, but if you watch you’ll get to hear some cool theme music in the middle of my reflection. And there’s a wonderful baby dedication before my reflection. Also my call to worship sets the stage for my reflection, so you should really watch the whole thing. 🙂

Resilience

After Marine Sergeant Joe Merritt returned from his deployment in Afghanistan in 2009, his life began to unravel. Not surprisingly, he had experienced a traumatic brain injury on his tour and he was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, but neither issue had been officially diagnosed so he wasn’t yet receiving treatment. Then his wife suddenly left, so he was on his own caring for his baby boy and his two-year-old son with autism.

With the help of a visiting nurse from the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Joe found support for his family, received treatment for depression, and experienced catharsis in art therapy. He started participating in a program called Combat Paper, which helps veterans articulate their combat experience through art by literally turning their uniforms into paper. Once the cloth becomes pulp and is pressed into paper, veterans can do anything they want with it. “Everybody’s got a story about combat,” Joe told me. “Those stories are hard to tell sometimes. Combat Paper gives you a medium. You’re taking something you’re so attached to and breaking it down and making it your own. When you’re deployed, you don’t always have a say in what you do. Once your uniform becomes paper, you can have a say. You can paint on it or just shred it and throw it away.”

Joe made progress, but he didn’t magically get better. As he prepared to leave the Marine Corps so he could focus on caring for his boys, Joe’s mental state plummeted and he attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived, and entered an inpatient treatment center, where art and writing helped him truly come alive again.

Now Joe is an artist whose work often explores the darkness of his combat experience. Joe also teaches art to fellow veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and helps connect them with artistic outlets in the community. He bought a home on the Eastern Shore and he and his boys have experimented with all kinds of artistic techniques to decorate it.

I’ve interviewed Joe several times and I follow him and his boys on Facebook. He is a long way from the edge of the abyss that threatened to claim him years ago, but his life is not easy. He still falls down and stands up all the time.

***

In my own story of resilience, I literally fall down. I get real black and blue bruises. And, slowly but surely, I stand up again.

When I was growing up, I did not play sports. My family is about books and music and plays and museums. It took me years to learn to ride a bike and to swim. I was accused, not unjustly, of being uncoordinated and clumsy. I could find no evidence to the contrary.

In 2003, I met my husband Randy, a lifelong soccer player. You know how you do crazy things when you fall in love with someone? I joined his soccer team. Because they loved

Randy, his teammates were generous in welcoming me onto the field, despite my utter lack of athletic ability or knowledge of the game. I was terrified before and throughout every game.

Twelve years later, after my daughter Zoe had been playing with her soccer team for a while, I learned about a summer soccer clinic for adult beginners. The class was primarily aimed at parents who had never played or had played as kids, but who wanted to learn or improve their skills because their kids were playing. I signed up. The clinic was fantastic. I had so much fun. Many of the people on the field with me had as little experience and as many apprehensions as I did, but we had a great time together. When it ended, we were encouraged to sign up for pickup games sponsored by the parks department, so I did. At my very first actual game, I was knocked down—twice—within the first five minutes of play. I did not return to the pickup games.

The following spring, a fellow freelance writer who had also taken the adult beginner soccer clinic, asked me to join the women’s soccer team she was forming to play in the 40+ division. She had never been on a team before but was willing to try. The team was called Ice & Ibuprofen. We were realistic.

The first game was rough. Playing left back, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same player blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines. She scored three goals. I guess it wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried.

But the next Monday I showed up again, and over the course of the season I got a little better. Our team got a little better. More importantly, I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing a whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. The women on my team were kind and encouraging and played with heart. Only a few of us had soccer experience, but it didn’t matter. I got knocked down many times. I bruised some ribs. A few of my teammates have sustained injuries on the field that required surgery. But every one of them has come back the next season, stronger and more determined.

When you’re five and you draw a picture of your family, everyone says it’s wonderful even if your family members bear no resemblance to people. It doesn’t matter. When you’re a kid you are heralded as a great artist or athlete or inventor whether or not you have any talent. You’re encouraged to try and allowed to have fun engaged in any activity.

Then at some point between that state of grace and adulthood, we stifle that energy and enthusiasm. People say, “Oh I can’t sing,” or “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not athletic” because somewhere along the line that’s what we felt or were told. Instead of standing up after that final insensitive blow, we simply crawled away.

It is hard to get into our heads as grownups that it’s ok to do something even if we’re not very good at it. We can enjoy it anyway. Even if we never get better!

Ice & Ibuprofen plays in the spring and fall, but I decided this year I wanted to keep up the momentum and get some exercise by playing in the summer. A friend from high school recruited me to play on a team in a different league in a different county. Once again, I was kind of terrified. I showed up and I didn’t know a soul on the field—my friend hadn’t arrived yet—but I jumped in the game. I did not play well. I was nervous and also everyone there was far more skilled than I was. And most of the women seemed to be 10 or 20 years older as well. It was tough. But I went back the next week, and I played with just the slightest bit more confidence. I fell down. I have a big bruise on my calf right now. But I stood up again.

***

My resilience role model is my daughter, Zoe. She is sensitive, but fierce.

Three years ago, when she was seven, Zoe was about to advance from a yellow belt to a green belt at her martial arts studio. She has practiced martial arts since kindergarten, and mastered many techniques, and under her bed she has a big box of boards she has broken. At this ceremony, however, when she was moving from yellow to green, she had to break a thicker board—a much thicker board—than at previous levels.

She had actually broken one of the thick boards before—during summer camp at the martial arts studio—and on the first try. But there’s no pressure at summer camp. Nothing at stake.

At the growth ceremony, however, all the students are there. Hundreds of parents, grandparents, and siblings are there. Everyone in the room counts down 3-2-1 while pounding the floor when it’s time for each group to break their boards.

Understandably, it’s not uncommon for a kid to not break the board on the first try. It’s hard and it’s nerve wracking. Everyone is watching. But the instructors at this school are wonderful, and they give the kids many chances, and coaching, and opportunities to practice. Usually, everyone gets it within a few tries, or in some cases, a dozen or two.

For whatever reason, on this day, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. The instructors gave her extra chances and then eventually had to move on to the next part of the ceremony. They took her into another room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. Master Emerson asked her if she thought she could break the board. She said yes. He asked us if we thought she could break the board. We said yes.

They gave her another opportunity back in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. She bowed. They took her into the next room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. They gave her yet another opportunity to break it in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. They said after the ceremony was over she could try again.

The ceremony ended and most students and families filed out. A few dozen people stuck around to watch Zoe make her final attempt. Master Emerson explained to her that this was her last chance, and he couldn’t promote her to green solid if she didn’t break the board. Her instructors continued to coach, reminding her to use her heel instead of her toes, and to fall forward toward the board as she kicked. They let her try different kicking techniques to see where she could draw the most power.

Finally, somehow, she gathered her strength and power and hit it with her heel and the board broke. At last.

Zoe told me later that she was embarrassed—NOT that it had taken her so long to break the board—but because I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around after she did it. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly for Zoe and taking pictures.

Throughout the whole ceremony, Zoe never once said, “I can’t do it,” or “This is too hard,” or “I give up.” She didn’t cry. She just kept trying.

I took her to lunch after the ceremony and asked how she felt and she said, “This is a great day!” She was smiling and happy and in no way discouraged. That’s what I always remember when I fall down. She just remained standing. She wouldn’t let that board keep her down.

May we all have the resilience to keep kicking until we break that board, even if it takes all day. And then at the end to simply be proud of ourselves for not giving up. Fall down and stand up for the millionth time, and say, “Hey, I stood up again. This is a great day!”

The_Schuyler_Sisters

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman,
 dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean
 by providence
Impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

This is the first stanza of the first song in the musical Hamilton, which, if you haven’t heard of it or heard the music yet, is fantastically brilliant. No, I haven’t seen it. I’m not rich or that lucky. But I have listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count.

As have my children. We’re liberal around here with the music. Our kids know Mozart and they know Madonna, and everything in between. And Zoe has memorized all 20,520 words  in Hamilton. She’s well-read and has a sizable vocabulary, but as you might expect, she was not familiar with all these words. One day she came into the room where I was working and said, “What’s a bastard?” and I explained that it was a derogatory term for someone whose parents were not married when he was born. She knew orphan already from a million fairy tales and Disney movies. Next was whore. This was a little trickier, since–as far as we know–her understanding of sex is that it’s what two people who love each other and want to have a baby do together. (I’ve long been troubled by the significant gap between this definition that we teach kids when they’re first learning about sexuality and the reality of everything that sex can mean in our society, which most kids just hear or see or prematurely experience without any parental guidance whatsoever. That’s a discussion for another day.) So I explained whore, or prostitute, or sex worker if you really want to get it right. Whew. 

Then she asked, “What’s a Scotsman?” And I laughed. “That’s easy, I said. A person from Scotland, a country next to England and Ireland and Wales. It’s not a bad word.”

Of course along with the adult words, there are plenty of adult themes in Hamilton, including adultery. Some of these things Zoe has asked about and some she hasn’t. Some explanations we’ve discussed in-depth and some she has absorbed silently. I know she’ll feel comfortable asking more when she needs to do more. I have told her many times that I always want her to be able to ask me anything at any time and I hope she takes me up on that.

This summer she outgrew her booster seat in the car, got her ears pierced, and requested a certain feminine undergarment, which she wears every day. She brushes her hair before she leaves the house. She swims like a fish, she learned to ride a bike, and she earned her red solid belt in martial arts–the last belt before becoming a black belt. Watching her take the test to earn her red solid I was awed by the confidence and power she has developed since she began learning martial arts four years ago. It is increasingly apparent what she is capable of accomplishing.

She spent two weeks at sleep-away camp–of which she apparently was homesick for one, but she still threw herself into archery, fishing, and wilderness skills and had a great time. She wrote us a letter every day. At camp she swam in the lake daily. She jumped off the high dive and swung into the lake on the rope swing, neither of which she did last year and both of which she swore she wasn’t ready for the day we dropped her off at camp. She remains terrified of thunderstorms and she sleeps with seven stuffed animals every night. She becomes impossibly sad or angry or frustrated without warning. She glares. She cries. So do I, right?

These days she is demographically classified as a tween, which seems particularly accurate right now. Even at nine, she seems poised to become a teenager while still clinging to the vestiges of kid-dom that she loves. She wants to play with her little brother’s toys and read picture books and watch cartoons, but also be independent and grown-up and fierce and beautiful. She wants to snuggle and she wants to be in charge. I guess that could describe a lot of people I know, of many ages.

She wants to be Eliza Hamilton (the one on the left in the picture above) for Halloween. I have no idea where we will get an Eliza dress. If you have an idea, please let me know. I will pay you if you want to sew one for her. Much as I love the American Girls for the same reason, I love that Zoe has learned so much about American history and the founding fathers and mothers even as it’s all tied up in romance and violence and politics and intrigue. Hamilton is as good an introduction to the complexities of real life as any. She knows when Hamilton was shot by Burr and where the Revolutionary War ended. Today at lunch we were making a list of mommy-daughter activities to do over the coming year, and she was excited at the prospect of visiting the National Archives when I told her that the documents that Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and their compatriots wrote are displayed there.

We’re also going to check out a roller derby bout, hike the Billy Goat Trail, bake for our neighbors, and volunteer at the food bank. When we decided she would not continue with Girl Scouts I committed to special monthly mommy-Zoe activities. I imagine these outings will provide more opportunities for these conversations. And for me to learn to give her space when she needs it.

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 marPrincess Leia legotial 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 sparring glovesmuch 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.

courageboard

I lost count of how many times Zoe kicked her board during Saturday’s growth ceremony at Evolve All. At the end of the day, the number doesn’t matter.

Breaking the board is the final part of the test to graduate to the next belt. In this, Zoe was graduating from the yellow solid belt to the green solid belt, which requires you to break a much thicker board than all the previous belt levels. This is a big-time board.

To be fair, most of her yellow solid classmates found it challenging to break the board. Out of a dozen young martial artists, I think only one or two got it on the first kick, and most of them required several kicks. It was tough. And really breaking these boards is tough for many levels. The young woman who became a black belt during this ceremony, who is fierce and had to break five consecutive boards with different techniques got really stuck on the third board and had to kick it at least a few dozen times before she broke it. So this is not easy. Not impossible, but not easy.

For whatever reason, Zoe just wasn’t connecting with the board with enough force to break through. She had actually broken one of these thick boards before, during a board breaking focused summer camp at Evolve All. So she knew she was capable of it. Of course at summer camp, no pressure at all. She broke it there on the first try.

Back to Saturday, Zoe was the last yellow solid of her group to go. She kicked and kicked but no break. The instructors gave her extra chances and then had to move on to the next part of the ceremony. They took her into another room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. Master Emerson asked her if she thought she could break the board. She said yes. He asked us if we thought she could break the board. We said yes.

They gave her another opportunity back in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. She bowed. They took her into the next room to practice. She practiced. They coached her. They gave her yet another opportunity to break it in the ceremony. She kicked. No break. They said after the ceremony was over she could try again.

At some point during all this Zoe was sitting with me at the edge of the mat and a mom we didn’t know came up to her and said, “You are so courageous!”

The ceremony ended and most students and families filed out. A few dozen people stuck around to watch Zoe make her final attempt. Master Emerson explained to her that this was her last chance, and he couldn’t promote her to green solid if she didn’t break the board. She said she understood. Master Emerson and Mister Christian continued to coach, encouraging her to use her heel instead of her toes, and to fall forward toward the board as she kicked. They let her try different kicking techniques to see where she could draw the most power.

Finally, somehow, she gathered her strength and power and hit it with her heel and the board broke. At last.

Zoe told me later that she was embarrassed that I jumped up and down and screamed and picked her up and spun her around. She buried her head in my neck in a way she hasn’t done in years. She said later that she was crying. Something had to happen to all that tension and adrenaline. Everyone who had stayed was cheering wildly and taking pictures. Mister Christian tied her new belt around her waist and gave her a big hug.

Throughout the whole ceremony, Zoe never once said, “I can’t do it,” or “This is too hard,” or “I give up.” She didn’t cry. She just kept trying.

I took her to lunch after the ceremony and asked how she felt and she said, “This is a great day!” She was smiling and happy and in no way discouraged. I was kind of astonished.

We went roller skating that night and I had already decided that I was in no way going to push her. She started skating last year and was still pretty tentative about it the last time she put her skates on. I figured she’d pushed herself enough all day. But we got there and after a few minutes of skating with the walker on wheels that you can rent (an ingenious invention made of PVC pipe) she asked me to take the walker several feet away so she could skate to it. Over and over she would ask me to take it farther and farther away so she could practice skating without it. By the end of the night she was challenging me to races.

At the community center where the skating takes place we ran into a friend of a friend who we didn’t know but who had also been at the growth ceremony and who congratulated Zoe on her persistence. Then yesterday Randy and Zoe and Zeke were at a playground and another mom they didn’t know who evidently had been at the growth ceremony said, “Zoe! Did you break your board?” and congratulated her when she said yes. Zoe said she didn’t like being famous.

Last night when we were cleaning up, I asked Zoe to write the date on the pieces of board she had broken, so we would remember when it was from. We have martial arts board fragments in drawers and boxes all over the house. She wrote the date and Evolve All green solid break (actually it’s the yellow solid break to become a green solid, but that’s ok). She drew a little belt with the fortune cookie knot. Underneath she wrote COURAGE!

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.

10172795_10152701602524045_1070376792_nToday at her 7th birthday party Zoe was asked to break four boards. Usually at the martial arts studio where she attends classes three days a week, you have the opportunity to break a board on your birthday. The instructors at her party asked if she wanted to break four. No pressure or anything. All her friends got up and broke boards, some on the first try but most after some extra coaching. And then it was Zoe’s turn. She had requested that I hold one of the boards, so I was on the mat, on one knee, holding the board and bracing for her punch.

Turns out she was pretty nervous. Lots of friends and family members were there to celebrate her. All eyes were on her. The punches and kicks that she does routinely and knows well were suddenly harder to execute. During every practice session she practically knocked the target out of the instructor’s hand, but when it was time to break the board, she would punch to it, not through it. In the end, it took many tries for her to break all four boards. But she did not give up, she did not get upset, she did not stop trying for even a second. She even smiled through most of it, when she wasn’t looking intensely focused. Where she gets this amazing determination, I do not know. But the girl has heart.

Her birthday present from her grandparents was, at her request, a wheelchair for her American girl doll, along with a medical kit, complete with leg cast and arm brace, for the doll. Zoe loves tending to her dolls and making them well. Who knows if she will actually fulfill her aspiration to become an obstetrician, but if she does, she will have an outstanding beside manner.

One of the tasks required for her to achieve the next belt level in martial arts (the big move from red stripe belt to yellow solid belt, which signifies the transition from intermediate to advanced skill) is to come up with a virtue you think is important and which you aspire to embody, and describe it for the instructors and your classmates. Zoe’s choice is respect. We have talked about respect many times recently at the dining room table. Today she asked, “Am I respectful?” I answered, “usually.” She seemed disappointed. I said, “nobody’s perfect, but you are generally respectful.” She said, “but I never hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose and I’m never mean.” And we agreed that was true and that’s part of being respectful. Randy pointed out that it’s also a part of respect to listen to your parents and not argue when they ask you to do something or stop doing something. But, I told Zoe, it is true that you are always kind. If I have tried to instill anything in her, it is to be kind. She was listening.

On our outing to the library last weekend, Zoe selected several chapter books and then we perused the nonfiction shelves while she looked for anything of interest. She picked out a book “Autism and Me: Sibling Stories.” I asked her why she chose it and if she knew what autism was. She said it looked interesting and no, she had no idea what autism was. So we went home and read it together. As it happens, this is a great book. It includes 14 first-person accounts by kids of what it’s like to live with their autistic siblings, for better or for worse. Zoe was fascinated. We had a good discussion about learning differences and challenges that some kids have and how everyone can be good at some things even if they have a hard time with others. This is a hard thing to remember, especially when we are always hearing this message that we should be the best at everything. Which is impossible. Last weekend after her winter swim clinic, Zoe was a little down. She reported that after every lap, she was the last one to finish and felt like everyone was staring at her. I said they probably weren’t staring so much as watching her finish, waiting to start their next lap. But I got the idea. Zoe is a strong swimmer and has improved her strokes vastly in the past year or so. But she’s not the fastest. But who cares? She can swim and not sink, and she knows how to do two actual swimming strokes and can cross the pool repeatedly doing those strokes. That’s enough for me. Actually that’s more than I could do in the pool myself. Hopefully it will be enough for her too. There are many things at which she excels, so it’s good to have some things you’re just fine at, but not the best, and remember that they’re fun anyway.

Such as martial arts. Zoe’s fierce determination has enabled her to advance over the past two years. Certainly there are other kids who are stronger and technically better at martial arts. But Zoe has heart, and she has fun. And she is equally at ease becoming a magical fairy or caring for her dolls. Not to mention caring for her actual baby brother, whom she adores. I can’t wait until he starts learning martial arts from her. He already enjoys playing with her dolls, although he mostly tends to slobber on their heads or poke their eyes. In a brilliant marriage of her interests, I managed to find a martial arts uniform for Zoe’s American girl doll. And in an uncharacteristic moment of craftiness, I managed to put the logo of Zoe’s martial arts studio on the back of the doll’s jacket, to match the new uniform we gave Zoe for her birthday. 1011106_10152701603484045_910405362_nI am not a crafty person, but I wanted to do something extra special for Zoe, because she’s an extra special kid.

Happy birthday, Zoe. I love you and admire you so much. Love, Mommy

When I arrived at school yesterday to pick Zoe up after her last day of kindergarten, I found her, fully clothed in her Abingdon t-shirt (“I want to wear it on the last day to show everyone how much I like Abingdon,” she said) and some shorts, sitting and splashing in a baby pool with several of her friends to cool off. She was soaked. And why not? What else is there to do after the last day of school? Apparently water games were part of the last day carnival that the extended day teachers creatively and generously put on for the kids but Zoe neglected to tell me about it the night before. Whatever. It’s the last day of school! Getting wet in your clothes makes it easier to not be too sad about the end of a fabulous year.

I saw Zoe’s wonderful teacher in the hallway as I was wheeling Zeke through the school to find Zoe, and thanked her again. Part of me wanted to hug her, but I knew if I did I would cry and I didn’t feel like she needed to deal with me crying. I did tell her, despite myself, that I found out I was pregnant with Zeke on the first day of school. So somehow the last day of school seemed like my little baby bubble was popping. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of help and support from family and friends over the past eight weeks to make life easier for me and to allow me to focus on Zeke. Randy has driven Zoe to school every day since Zeke was born, which has been huge. On Monday Zoe will start camp which, thankfully, begins an hour and a half later than school starts, so it will be once again up to me to take charge of things in the morning. I am confident I can handle this, but I’m a little sad for the end of my morning repose with Zeke.

But I digress. While Zoe finished splashing with her friends, I nursed Zeke in the hallway, briefly chatting with the strings teacher, greeting other teachers who walked by, and meeting the technology teacher when she came by to admire Zeke. I saw tonight that she had posted a video of the Big Wave, an Abingdon tradition where all the teachers and staff sing and dance and send off the kids on the last afternoon. I love this school. Throughout the year, and especially over the past few weeks when it would seem all learning had ceased, Zoe did so many fun and interesting things at school. Her teachers and the other kindergarten teachers found creative and enriching activities to keep them engaged. She learned about Betsy Ross, magnets, the different between needs and wants, and introductory economics using musical chairs. The extended day teachers brought in a DJ for a dance party and hosted a slumber party. Field day was apparently the most fun Zoe had ever had in her life. Last night we went through a variety of workbooks and projects that Zoe brought home. She read us her end of the year book. She thoughtfully completed the final few pages in the My Kindergarten Year book that we gave her at the beginning of the year. Tonight we took her out for dinner at the restaurant of her choice (Lost Dog) followed by dessert of her choice (Dairy Queen) to celebrate her accomplishments during kindergarten and today’s tae kwan do belt ceremony where she broke her board (on the second try!) and earned her green stripe belt. We made toasts to each other.

Afternoons managing two kids are challenging, and this year has not been without its tough spots, including Zoe’s surgery, a rough pregnancy, and the trying minutiae that gets magnified and seems to consume us sometimes. But it’s lovely to end the year on a good note. We have a delightful rising first-grader and a cute baby boy who now often greets us with smiles. So what if the air conditioner is broken. We are lucky people. Let’s go jump in the baby pool.

Sometimes I wish Zoe would magically behave like some mythical girl I imagine from the 50s–perhaps like how I imagine my mom and her siblings were taught to behave by my Nana and Papa. I don’t know how they actually behaved, but I imagine a lot of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” and looking adults in the eye and shaking their hands politely when the adults said “you look so nice!” or “you’re getting so tall!” I somehow imagine they never had to be told (again and again) to sit up, or to stop scowling, or to stop kicking the back of someone else’s seat.

But that’s probably not true. That’s what kids do, right?

And in general I’m thrilled we don’t live in the 50s.

I often think about how vastly different the culture was and my grandparents’ circumstances were from my own parents, and–somewhat less dramatically–how the expectations for parents and children are for my generation. Paradoxically I wish for the simplicity, respect, and determination to appreciate what you have and not waste so much of everything that I feel was characteristic of my grandparents’ parenting and my parents’ upbringing. But I realize that times were different and some of that leanness was born of necessity. They had less so they had no choice. We have more so we can afford to make poor decisions more often. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Sometimes I don’t know how to stop it though.

I read somewhere that moms today spend way more hours actually engaged in activities with their children than moms 50 years ago, despite the fact that more moms today have part-time or full-time jobs outside the home than did previously. Because that’s what’s expected of us. We have playgroups, we take our babies to music classes and sign language classes and playdates. My own mom, who was a stay-at-home mom at least until my sister and I were in school all day, doesn’t recall scheduling playdates with us and our friends. Friends would come over to play or we would be dropped off somewhere else. But that didn’t really happen until elementary school. We went to preschool. But we didn’t take weekend classes at the rec center when we were three. I’m making no judgment here whatsoever. I’ve signed Zoe up for and schlepped her to plenty of classes, some of which I thought she would love, and some of which I felt like I was supposed to bring her to. And certainly when your kid crosses the threshold where you don’t have to participate in the class, and you can sit on the sidelines and watch, what a relief to have a break! In recent years Zoe has said, “I wish you were one of the counselors at camp so you could stay there all day with me.” Um, don’t you get it? If I was going to be with you all day, I wouldn’t send you to camp. We would just stay home. I have to work. That’s why you go to camp. But I don’t say that.

Which brings us, naturally, to martial arts. A couple years ago Zoe attended a tae kwon do birthday party. She was a little scared and a little intrigued. Chalk it up to a new experience. The following year, she attended the party of the same girl (now a black belt) at the same tae kwon do studio. She loved it. She wasn’t scared. She was fearless. She said, “I want to take tae kwon do!”

I file that away and then notice months later there is a new martial arts studio in our neighborhood. We sign up for a two-week trial. It’s not easy, but it’s fun and interesting and Zoe’s on board. Of course the timing on my part was foolish. When we did the trial we were in the midst of a rec center gymnastics session and a preschool soccer clinic. And we were looking forward to a summer at the pool and more swimming lessons. Tae kwon do seemed like too much to add, so we didn’t.

Then, after a summer of successful swimming (which it turns out that Zoe’s much better at than soccer or gymnastics), the pool closed and our thoughts returned to tae kwon do. The people running this studio are smart. The minimum commitment is six months. You can also opt for 12 or 18 months worth of classes when you sign up. You can go once, twice, or three times a week. It turns out that it actually takes a while (or at least it has for Zoe) to get the hang of martial arts.

I was thrilled that Zoe showed interest in this. It’s so important for kids–and I think girls in particular–to have the strength and confidence instilled by martial arts. Zoe is active and athletic but also very girly and princessy. Her parents are conflict-averse. I emphasize compassion and kindness and politeness. Assertiveness has never been my strong suit. So I didn’t make her sign up, and it wasn’t even my idea. But I’m the one who’s made the commitment.

Martial arts is hard. The master who teaches her class is excellent, and a stickler for perfection. He does not reward kids who don’t get it right. And why should he? If you’re going to learn it, of course you should get it right. But did I mention it’s hard? It requires different skills than reading or writing or painting or making up shows or any of the many, many things that Zoe does well at and enjoys. It requires patience, diligence, a lot of repetition. Martial arts requires strength, agility, and amazing motor skills and coordination. For a five-year-old, these skills are still developing, sometimes slowly. So Zoe complains. When it’s time to go to class, she often doesn’t want to. She’s tired. But when she gets to class she usually perks up and has a great time. I often struggle with what to say or do to get her excited about going. She doesn’t understand or care about the money I’m spending on the classes or the commitment we’ve made and I’m sure not going to get into how I want her to be able to fend off attackers when she’s older if she’s ever in a dangerous situation. It’s hard to come up with a reason you should do something that you don’t feel like doing that’s not necessarily mandatory, like school or eating or bathing.

Recently she went to a day of camp at the martial arts studio on a day when school was closed. When I arrived in the afternoon, it was time for her regular class. She’d already been there for seven hours, some of which she’d been practicing moves and some of which she’d been playing and watching a movie. Apparently she was completely spent. And apparently I was totally unable to comprehend that, and deeply frustrated that she was refusing to participate in the class and just glaring at me. I had brought her the day before to a 50-minute private lesson there because she had said she felt like she was behind and didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing, after missing a couple weeks of class because of her surgery. During the private lesson she improved dramatically just over the course of 50 minutes. She was focused, determined, and awesome. When she wouldn’t go to class the next day and she gave up the opportunity to demonstrate what she’d learned and test for a stripe on her belt, I was so angry. So we went home and I fumed and she sobbed and I did not have my best ever parenting day.

She went back to class the next regularly scheduled day and was happy enough to go. I thought she did great and the master asked her to try to test for her next stripe, and while I thought she nailed it, apparently she didn’t quite, because he didn’t give it to her. I was disappointed, but she came off the mat smiling and I congratulated her for working hard. I asked if she wanted to go to class Saturday (which we don’t usually go to, but could since we missed several classes and should really make them up) so she could have another shot, and she said no. I asked her again later and she still said no. But she’s been practicing her form all weekend and her punches and kicks, so clearly she wants to get back on the mat and try again.

Part of the reason I so want Zoe to stick with this is that it’s difficult and it doesn’t come easy for her. I wish I had had the opportunity to do something like that when I was a kid. The most comparable thing for me was math, but I never got better and there was no joy there for sure. I never played on a team or competed in anything except intellectual pursuits. That’s a whole different post, but the point is I know this could be so good for her. But I don’t want to push her so much that we both dissolve into tears and fury. But I don’t want to let her give up just because she doesn’t feel like working at it one day. But maybe when you’re five your parents should cut you some slack? Or maybe that’s when you need to start learning to be strong?

Randy says when she does get her next stripe, it will mean that much more because she’s had to try for it again and again. That’s probably true. Until then I probably just need to take more deep breaths and not say anything. I should try not to push or pull. But it’s so hard.

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