10

Big Yellow Taxi – for One

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The school science fair – two hours of bacteria gone bad, baking soda gone berserk and rocket ships gone rogue. As this was our first time at the rodeo, we chose the experiment-in-a-box approach courtesy Amazon Prime. With a few clicks and the cost of 3 Starbucks Ventis, we had a surefire, turn-key solution. 5 swabs, 10 petri dishes and 48 hours later, we confirmed that yes, our dog does have the dirtiest mouth in the family, which should be no surprise because he is the only member who regularly licks his butt.

Strolling through the aisles of 36×24 Avery boards, I was struck by how creative kids could be with a little latitude and a lot of parental support.

How long does it take for a mouse to master a maze?
Check out aisle 2.
Which singer is more conducive to weight loss – Taylor Swift or Tim McGraw?
Find the answer in aisle 4.

Samantha, a 5th grader, stood at the end of aisle 6. At 5’2 she already towered over some of her classmates. And with her untamed frizzy hair and oversized glasses she looked every bit the part of the mad scientist.

“Do you know if you see what’s really there – or here?” She motioned to her display. “I’ve always wondered if what I think in my head is identical to what I see. Don’t you?”

I shook my head. My thoughts were more along the lines of Did I turn the stove off? I wore a bra today, right?

“This is quite a setup you have here, Samantha.” Her display was impressive – a slick tri-fold with an iPad mounted on the center panel.

“Indeed it is.”

Samantha was one of those kids that everyone seemed to know…sort of. They knew who she was, but not really what she was about. She spoke like she swallowed a BBC program guide, even though she was from the north side of Chicago. And she pushed the boundaries of the school’s uniform on a daily basis. Today she sported flashing globe earrings and a matching – and flashing – headband – “For Earth Day,” she supplied when I had commented on them.

She cleared her throat three times before launching into her presentation. “I find great satisfaction in building things. So I had to determine the best way to display the information such that people could absorb it. I’m exploring a relatively abstract concept – “ She paused, then laughed. “Abstract! At a science fair. How droll. I’ll have to relay that to my mom. But I digress.  The question I sought to answer is: how do we witness what we see? ‘Tis a conundrum to say the least.”

She tapped the iPad.

“So tell me, what do you see?”

“People in a circle playing basketball.”

“Spot on.” She reached across and hit the pause button. “OK, I’m going replay it from the beginning and you can tell me how many passes you see. Not too much of a challenge, I hope?”

I nodded, then squinted slightly – the low cafeteria light not doing any wonders for my post-40 vision.

“27,” I announced proudly at the end of 30 seconds.

“And what of the gorilla?”

I cocked my head. “Wait, what gorilla?”

“The primate that walked past the group. Observe.” She scrolled back to the 15-second mark, then paused, making sure that I registered it before resuming. There was the gorilla. It had actually stopped, waved, then done a little dance before continuing across the screen.

“Fascinating, right?”

As she explained inattentional blindness – the failure to see what is in plain sight – my smile slowly faded to a regret-tinged sigh.

This kid was clever.
This kid was creative.
And…this kid was leaving.

I had learned of her transfer the week prior, during morning drop-off in a drive-by conversation. His mother and I had parked next to each other, twin minivans rolling up just as the tardy bell had rung. After we’d hustled our respective kids into the building, I shook my head and laughed. “I swear, next year we are going to be on time for a change!”

“I know what you mean,” Margot replied. “We’re going to have an even longer commute next year.”

“Oh! Are you guys moving?”

“No…” She dropped her voice, drawing closer as we walked to our cars. “No, we’re transferring at the end of the year.”

“Wow. Wait – all of you?” She had 4 kids in the school, ranging from preschool through 5th grade. To say she was busy was an understatement.

“Yeah.” She took her sunglasses off and I saw the start of tears she struggled to hold back. “We had a family meeting about it. The kids were great – all of them. It’s been a really rough year for Samantha. We don’t want to go, but we can’t keep her here. But the logistics of two schools – it’s just too much.”

I nodded sympathetically. “Is it something specific?”

“Samantha gets teased every day. Well, teased or ignored depending…I mean, I get it – she’s a little different. OK, she’s a lot different. She loves her teachers, but I have to drag her to school every day. That’s why we’re always so late.”

(We, on the other hand, did not have an excuse for being late, other than, well, CPT which we were really trying to work on this year.)

“Did you mention anything to the teachers…maybe the administration?”

“I did. They were great. I mean, they listened, and agreed to do some interventions, keep an eye out on the playground…but…you know how it goes. If you don’t fit in, don’t find your ‘tribe’, it can be really hard.”

I looked around the parking lot as I struggled for a response. There were the usual clusters of post-drop-off parents – the spiky-hair hipsters joking about the latest Game of Thrones episode, the North Face SAHMs coordinating the next toddler playdate, the yoga moms, the suit-and-tie dads…so many islands and nary a bridge between them.

A diverse community
Isolated by sameness

I looked back at Margot, my eyes filling to match hers. “I’m sorry.” I said, then squeezed her arm. “I wish…“

What?

I wish I knew the names of her 4 kids – apart from their shared last name.
I wish I had some idea of how she spent her free time – what little there was of it.
I wish I knew If our paths would cross again – though it was highly unlikely.

“I wish things were different,” I said, knowing how inadequate my words were.

She patted my hand.

“Me too.”

****
At church this past Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Good Shepherd, the One who tends the flock, but will leave to find us should we stray.  When the priest asked, “who among us is the Good Shepherd,” I hesitated for a moment, half-raising my hand, not wanting to be “wrong”.

“All of us,” he said. “All of us are called.”

For the rest of mass, his words echoed in my head.

We’re not called to be perfect, only to be present – to take the time to acknowledge that yes, we are in this space together.

No matter who we are
No matter where we find ourselves
We are all wandering in this wilderness
Called to lead each other home.

2

Sufi Says…

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Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask, “is it true?”

We are rushing – as usual – to leave the house. Today, it is to make the bus for Olivia’s first field trip – a two-hour zoo outing. Her teachers have been prepping her class all week – painting pictures, reading books, and singing animal songs. She is so excited for this new experience that she is downstairs and dressed before Lori and I have even sipped our morning coffee. Sure, her shoes are on the wrong feet, and her skirt is tucked into her underwear, but she is ready.

Nick and Gabe, on the other hand, lollygag their way through breakfast.

“You don’t want Olivia to miss her bus,” I remind them, forced glee with an undercurrent of annoyance lacing my tone. When we finally wrangle the kids to the car, I open the door, expecting the dome lights to go on as they always do.

Unless the battery is dead because someone played with the switches and left those lights on.

“NICK!” I snap. “You left the lights on again! How many times have I told you to leave them alone?!”

“I didn’t,” he says, bewildered, as he tests all of the buttons overhead. “I swear. I didn’t touch them!”

It is then that I notice that the master light switch is set to Off. When I push it to Door, the lights flick back on.

I am so ashamed.

“Sorry, Nick. I was wrong and I’m so sorry.”

“That’s OK,” he responds, but I see a little of that beautiful light dim in his eyes.

I can’t keep doing this.

At the second ask, “is it necessary?”

“Gabe, can you give Skippy water? He’s thirsty. And he can’t use his paws to get his water! That would be silly!”

My sister-in-law, mother of 4 spirited kids, shared that her kids respond better when she makes things fun and that maybe I might consider doing the same since my kids see my mouth moving, but hear none of the words that come out of it. I figure I’ll give it a try, but I think she meant that it had to be genuinely fun, not tight-smile-through-clenched-teeth fun.

Gabe keeps walking towards the table, one hand holding his snuggie, the other pressed to his mouth as he sucks his fingers.

“Gabe,” I say more insistently. “What is your job in the morning?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seriously?! It’s the same job you have every morning. Give. Skippy. Some. Water.”

“OK.” He moseys over the drawer to get a cup, then meanders to the bathroom to fill it. When I hear the water running a little too long, I walk over to find him standing on the stool, staring out the window as water overflows from the cup and into the sink.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

“Uh…”

He really has no idea what he’s doing. I can see it in his unfocussed eyes. Playing in the alley until 9 after a full day of camp completely wore him out.  There’s a reason why he slept so late, why he couldn’t rouse himself to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and a pile of laundry now awaits me by the basement door.

Why no matter how many times I say something, it’s just not going to happen today.

He’s tired. I know this. I just didn’t take the time to see it.

“Hey buddy,” I say gently. “That’s a lot of water for Skippy! He’s a dog, not a camel! How ’bout we give him a little less?”

Gabe smiles.

It’s the first one this morning.

At the third gate ask, “is it kind?”

“Good morning, Olivia! Guess who’s going to the zoo today!” I push her door open, and am surprised to find her room empty.

“Olivia?”

I pop back into the hall.

“Olivia?”

“I downstairs!” An enthusiastic voice peeps in reply.

OK, that’s weird. Usually, she’s snuggled in her Hello Kitty sleeping bag, reluctant to leave her blanket and stuffed animal sanctuary.

But today, she has turned all of kitchen lights on and is standing by the back door, one strap of her backpack slung over her shoulder.

She looks like a bag lady.

“Oh, Olivia” I chide, shaking my head. “What do we have here?” I untuck the denim skirt from her inside-out underwear and twist it into place. “The tag goes in the back, sweetie, and you need to see the pretty pattern on your underwear, remember?”

She nods, then starts chewing on her finger.

“And your shoes,” I sigh, undoing the velcro straps. “How are you going to walk around and see the animals if they’re on the wrong feet?”

“I sorry, Nana,” she sniffs, eyes downcast. “I going to the zoo today.”

“That’s right. You are going to the zoo today.”

“I get dressed by myself.”

“Yes, you did get dressed…” My voice trails off…by yourself, because you are smart, independent, and everything I say I want my children to be.

“I am a BIG girl,” she asks tentatively, her almond eyes looking up into mine.

“You are my BIG girl, and I am so very proud of you.”

She throws her arms around me, and I squeeze her body close to mine. I want to hold this moment forever.

So many words
So many gates
So many times to stay silent
And just be

 

 

 

 

0

Look Ma! No Hands!

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“It’s 3:59. Are we still going to basketball?”

Nick continues to drag a stick across the dirt in our backyard. He’s ignoring my question. It’s the 4th time I’ve asked in as many minutes.

“I love you, Nana,” Gabe chimes in, to reinforce his preferred son status.

“Thank you, Gabe. But I’m in the middle of talking to Nick right now.”

“OK, Nana. I like your shirt.” Yes, Gabe. And I appreciate your ability to charm. That will come in handy when you’re older.

At 4:04 I give up. By the time we pack into the car and drive to the park district, Nick’s class will be half over. Even at a mere $10 for the season, it still feels wasteful to miss a class.

“So we’re skipping today, are we?”

Still no response as he shrugs and meets Gabe on the play castle beside our magnolia tree.

“I don’t appreciate not getting an answer. It’s rude. How many times – “ I have to stop myself. I can feel the criticisms building, just waiting for their chance to curtail Nick’s burgeoning sense of self.

Walk away. Just walk away.

I hear the voice of Olivia’s teacher in my mind. How many times have I walked into her classroom at the end of the day and heard Ms. Georgia advise the kids to disengage? Surely after teaching toddlers for 25 years, she must have some special insight into conflict resolution…

From the kitchen window I watch Nick and Gabe point to an airplane passing overhead. Gabe giggles; Nick makes some odd flapping gesture with his arms. Gabe giggles again.

My eldest scrambles over the structure and into the tree, hooking his legs over a branch as he dangles upside down. I marvel at his core strength as he starts swinging his body to and fro, arms up hit the branch, then back to give Gabe a “high ten”.

“Faster, Nick! Go faster.”

He is the picture of effortless grace…until the momentum proves too much and he lands on his head in the dirt.

I am in motion before I am consciously aware of it, taking the stairs in the mudroom two-by-two, nearly tripping in my haste.

Then I stop.

Nick has pushed himself upright, shaking his head. His brother sits beside him rubbing his back.

“You OK, Nick? Do you need some ice?”

Nick doesn’t respond, but absentmindedly pats Gabe’s arm. He finally stands, then works his way back into position – first one leg, then the other, over the branch before he slowly unfurls his body.

“Good job, Nick,” Gabe encourages. He scans the backyard, settling on an over-sized green ball and rolls it towards the tree.

“Here, Nick! You catch, then throw it to me!”

The two brothers spend the next half hour channeling their inner circus performers – Nick still swinging upside down; Gabe finding balls of varying size with which to challenge Nick’s agility.

This is childhood – the beauty of self-directed, unrestricted play.

As much as Nick enjoys learning the perfect layup, he also needs this – time to experiment and explore. To fall, get up, and try again.

The time will come when he will want to leave this house, to be independent from his siblings.
From us.

But for now, he is here.
He is happy.
And that’s all that matters.

1

What Do I Believe?

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I was invited to answer a question – what do I believe – for a magazine I have written for.

The answer fills the pages of this blog.

***********************************

I believe in family – however it is defined.

It is an act of faith…and forgiveness. A bond tested – Oh Lord, is it tested! – and renewed.

It is an expression of humility, devotion, acceptance.

And Love.
Fierce.
Unconditional.

It is the space between you and me.
That makes us complete.

3

All The Time In The World

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“Keep up, Gabe,” I said, tugging my middle child gently by the hand as we scurried across the parking lot. He kept trying to slide his hand out of mine, so I grabbed the edge of his sleeve as my eyes scanned for errant cars.

I had just picked him and his brother up from school, dropped Nick off at the park district, then swung by home to pick up snacks. Now we had 30 minutes to find Gabe a new pair of sneakers because we had discovered at 7:45 this morning that his feet had grown a full size in the night.

“Can I ride in the cart?”
“Oh no, sweetie,” I dismissed his request, pushing the cart ahead of me. “C’mon. We have a bunch of stuff to pick up.”

I half-dragged him to the shoe department where I snatched the first pair of decent-looking size 10’s from the shelf.

“I wanted ones that light up.”
I exhaled impatiently.
“I looked. I didn’t see any. These are good enough. Let’s go.”

As we passed through the grocery aisle, Gabe’s eyes grew large as he saw all of the forbidden snacks that lay just beyond his grasp.

“I want Cheetos.”
“Not real food, Gabe. I’ve told you that before.”
“But Nana – “
“No, Gabe. Now keep moving.”

I glanced at my phone. We needed to move faster if we were going to get through our list. Almond butter…where would I be if I were almond butter –

My musings were cut short by a primal, rage-filled scream reverberated through the hallowed halls of Target.

I rolled my eyes. Some poor kid had hit the wall.

Then I froze.

Wait, was that my son who had released that unholy sound?

I turned slowly, half-expecting to find some mutant devil spawn, complete with spinning head and spewing vomit. But no, it was still Gabe, albeit eyes wild, fists clenched, teeth bared.

“Heeeeeeey buddy…what’s up?” I tried to sound sweet, but it came out more like what the f-?

He unleashed the litany of wrongs which had transpired within the last 5 minutes.

“You didn’t get me Cheetos!”
“I wanted to ride on the cart!”
“I don’t want to hold your hand in the parking lot!”

And the final blow – his pièce de résistance – which he delivered with an accusatory finger jabbing the space between us to underscore each precious word.

“You’re not coming to my BIRTHDAY PARTY!”

(He had clearly forgotten that he had already uninvited me from his party yesterday.)

“Well, sweetie,” I began, pushing my cart to the side. “I understand that you’re upset, but here’s the deal: I’m not going to buy you Flaming Hot Cheetos because it will burn your tongue off. You’re going to walk because you are 4, and don’t even fit in the carts anymore. And finally, my dear, dear sweet boy –“ And for this last explanation, I crouched low, encircling him in my arms as I drew him closer. “You need to hold my hand because that’s how I keep you safe. You are just too important for me to let anything bad happen to you.”

The crazy dissipated from his eyes as his body slumped and he leaned into my hug. I rubbed his low afro, and pressed a kiss into his forehead.

“You are my special helper, remember?”

Whether I said it for his benefit or mine, I couldn’t be sure.

A wide smile spread across his face. In my haste to finish shopping in time to grab his younger sister from daycare then swing by to get his older brother from basketball, I had forgotten that Gabe needed time too.

To go at his own pace.
To have his own thoughts.
To breathe into the space of who he was…
And who he was becoming.

I gave him a final squeeze before fishing in my pocket for the shopping list I knew he couldn’t quite read yet.

“So we need to get 3 more things – dog food, detergent and waffles. What do you want to look for first?”

He stared at the list – perhaps able to identify a few letters despite my chicken-scratch writing.

“Skippy needs food.”
“Alrighty then!”

I stood slowly, lamenting the pop from knees. As we entered the pet aisle, Gabe stopped in front of the first bag of dog food.

“Is it this one?”
“No, hon.”
“This one?”
“We need a green bag, sweetheart.”
“This one?”
“No, that’s dark green. We need light green.”
“This one?”
“That’s not even green, Gabe.”

I could feel it starting again – the need to move a little faster, so we could knock off the other items on the list. Then I heard a little giggle, as he pointed to a red bag.

“This one, Nana?”
“Very funny, Gabe.”

We spent another 10 minutes there, playing his little game of I-bet-you-thought-I didn’t-know-my-colors-but-I-totally-do. This kid has a quirky sense of humor, I thought.

Thank goodness I had the time to appreciate it.

11

When Life Gives You Lemons

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“Lemonade for sale. Sweet lemonade and bubbly water only zero cents!”

From our second floor bedroom, I heard Nick outside hawking drinks to the throngs of people he imagined needed refreshments during a 56 degree “heat spell”. He had dragged the kids’ craft table onto the front porch where he now sat, eagerly scanning the sidewalk for potential customers.

Never mind that it was drizzling…
Or that no one really walks down our street in the middle of the afternoon…
Or that people don’t really want to open a gate, walk past a barking dog and up a set of stairs to get a drink.

“Whatcha doing, bud,” I had asked earlier when he was climbing onto the counter to get the plastic, smiley face cups

“I’m going to sell drinks for free.”

“Okay…” I responded, slightly irritated. Nick was my BIG IDEAS boy, and he could latch onto the most ill-conceived ones with the conviction of the newly converted.

“You know, we have some nice paper cups…”

“I don’t need them,” he snapped.

“Alright…” I said, biting the inside of my cheek so I didn’t snap back. We had just returned from a very long day at the zoo. His little brother was passed out on the couch, and Nick, while too old for a nap, clearly needed some downtime.

“Do you want me to help you make some lemonade?”

“I already know how to do it,” he muttered, grabbing the bottle of lemon juice concentrate from the fridge.

“You probably need some sug– “

I didn’t get to finish my sentence.

“STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO! I’M 8 NOW!”

Yes, by a whopping 24 hours, genius, I thought, then mentally flogged the sarcastic wench who occasionally – ok, regularly – took up residence whenever I was tired. We had overstayed our welcome at the zoo by an hour, and the “one more animal” that we just had to see had been the one more thing to send all of us over the edge. Our long walk back to the car – weary mom with two crying kids – garnered sympathetic nods from grandparents and one furtive prayer from a fellow mom. (“There but for the grace of God…)

I needed to redirect myself and without a word (aloud) I harrumphed my way upstairs. After all, I had better things to do – like fold laundry. So there!

Now, 30 minutes later, Nick was still outside, inviting skeptical passersby to have “a nice tall glass of something nice to drink.” Contrary to the snotty – and yes, overtired – boy who had given me such brusque answers, this was the per-pubecent soprano of an angel, so sweet, so vulnerable.

I went downstairs, then opened the front screen slightly, not wanting to, you know, scare off any potential customers.

“How’s it going, bud?”

He hung his head, shaking it slightly. “Not so good. No one is thirsty today.”

“Well,” I tut-tutted, ready to run through the list of things he had done wrong this afternoon, and how, if he had just listened to me, there would be throngs of people lined up.

But then I didn’t.

I could be right, or I could be supportive.

But I couldn’t be both.

“You know, I had a lot of laundry to put away so I am really thirsty right now. Do you have time to make me a special drink?”

He gasped as lifted his head. “Sure,” he said excitedly, eagerly mixing soda water, lemon juice, and a splash of Gatorade. Not my concoction of choice, but one I gulped back with gusto.

“Excellent, sir! Might I have another?”

A groggy voice piped up behind me. “Nick, can I have one too?”

“You bet, Gabe!” Then Nick the mixologist whipped up two more of his signature cocktail.

He poured himself a third and the three of us cheered with our cups.

“Here’s to family!”

“Hey, Nick,” I exclaimed, widening my eyes as if our toast had just inspired a simply brilliant idea.

“What if when it gets warmer we all help out selling drinks? You could man the table. I could do the mixes. Maybe Gabe and Olivia could invite people over. Mommy could be in charge of refills. We’d be like a team.”

“Really?”

“You bet!”

We high-fived one another, then Nick shivered as the wind picked up, the rain blowing sideways onto our burgeoning business.

“I think it’s time to go inside,” Nick suggested. He gathered the cups while Gabe picked up the now-empty bottles.  As I carried the table inside, Nick hugged my enthusiastically, his face beaming.

“I can’t wait till summer, Nana.”

“How come?”

“Because then I’ll be able to sell A LOT of drinks for free!*”

(*Right. So the concept of getting money in exchange for services is something we’re still working on. Hopefully, we’ll have it mastered before the warm weather comes!)

2

How I Leaned to Stop Worrying And Love The Day Off

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I took a day off yesterday.

But I didn’t sleep in. I still woke at 5am for my holy hour – time to curl up in our comfy living room chair and just read, journal and – gasp! – even think. Hard to do with your own business, three kids, and a spouse you’d like to connect with over more than what parenting crisis we needed to solve that day.

By 6:30, the kids began to stir.  I clamped down on my first instinct – to frantically finish setting the table before racing upstairs to pry them from their beds, help them pick weather-appropriate clothes and get downstairs with enough time to snarf breakfast.

Instead, I stretched – a decadent, full-body stretch that seemed to last for hours. Then I retreated to the basement study to – double gasp! – write. Above me, I heard Lori chiding the kids to move their groggy selves just a wee bit faster. There were, of course, protests. And by the time they all reached the kitchen, these minor protests had escalated to a full assault on Lori’s parental authority.

We need more brown sugar, Mommy.  It tastes funny.”
“You don’t. It’s oatmeal and quinoa and you’ll eat it.”

I heard a spoon skitter across the dining room table before hitting the hardwood floor that separated me from the rest of the family.

“Throwing silverware is not acceptable in this house, Olivia.”

There was no separation between me and my daughter’s screaming response….or Lori’s increasingly clipped replies. And while it was tempting to run up to the first floor, and fling my body between the warring factions to negotiate some sort of peace settlement, I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

It was part of the agreement Lori and I had made at the start of the year: at least once a month, we got the entire day off. No wake up duty, no school drop-off, no afternoon pickup, no activity shuttling, no dinner recap.

Nada.

So I sat, waiting for the inevitable détente that arrives just as everyone realizes that they have less than five minutes to leave the house if they want to get to school on time. This was the rhythm of our lives and hearing it from afar, I couldn’t help but smile.

For every argument the boys had about who was going sit closer to their sister, one of them would pour her milk while the other held her cup steady. When they weren’t jostling for a turn at the bathroom sink, the kids were high-fiving one another for the smallest things – clearing the table without being asked, putting a coat on by oneself, or remembering to grab a lunchbox. While Nick spread toothpaste for everyone and Gabe gathered the boots from the mudroom, Olivia grabbed books for them to read in the car.

(Often, the boys put the books back and chose ones themselves, but they didn’t let Olivia see them do it.)

I watched them through the basement window, walking hand in hand to the car. Another successful morning…and there’d been nothing for me to do but watch it unfold.

It’s so hard to see the beauty of one’s life when you’re in the midst of it. To see the miraculous in the mundane. Yesterday was such a gift, a chance to appreciate how privileged I am to parent these kids, and how fortunate I am to share the experience with such a loving partner.

I took a day off yesterday.
And the world didn’t stop.
Instead, it only got better.