Thursday, August 28, 2014

Aaaand, They're Back school, that is.

Anna's adjusting to the joy of having math and trying to master opening the lock on her first-ever locker. She's playing with dolls one minute and talking to her friend on the phone about boys the next, so we've entered this strange netherworld of not quite a child/not yet an adult. I personally wouldn't care if she played with dolls until she's 15, but somehow I'm doubting that's going to happen.

And Ethan? Well, the jury's definitely still out on Ethan and how this school year will go. Kindergarten, I have to say, was a cake walk. First grade, we're asking more of him. More homework. A classroom without his good buddies he's known for years. A bus ride in the afternoon.

I'm trying not to worry and to give him time to adjust. This is easier said than done.

His teacher is fabulous. So far she's been attentive and sensitive to the fact that he might be more sensitive to certain things, like his bus being one of the few buses to show up late on the first day. She's done a little extra to make him feel comfortable and to pair him up with other kids. She gladly accepted my long rambling email giving her background on Ethan that might be useful. She's going to warn him about the fire drills (the prospect of one has him terrified once again this year).

She is his teacher, though. She can't make him make friends. That part's up to him.

Here's the thing about friends. In the past, aside from his few very close buddies, he didn't let on that he needed them. If everyone in the class was playing and he was on his own reading a book, no problem. If everyone on the playground was doing tag and he wanted to conquer the monkey bars yet again, that was fine by him. Interaction seemed to be an afterthought.

Now, this year, I wonder.

I asked him about the bus, if he sat with the girl from class the teacher had mentioned. "No, she sat with someone else," he said sadly. "I had no one to talk to." Yet on Day 2, he said they sat together, but didn't talk "because I was too busy looking out the window."

And in class? "I didn't make any friends," he told me, although his teacher clarified that everyone worked on making friends the first day.

He told me he played on the playground alone (at the monkey bars, once again). He didn't seem exactly upset about this; yet still came across as slightly troubled.

He got home from school the other day and walked straight into the neighbor's house (we need to work on this) to tell "Mr. John" he was home so that if he wanted to play whiffle ball, he would know. He got two cookies for a snack in the process.

We seem to be slowly making this shift between wanting to always be preferring to be with people more valuing the company of kids as well as adults more often than not. It's been very slow. And I know it may be painful. This is always the challenge: to rejoice at his wanting to connect with others, while simultaneously knowing that greater longing for connection could lead to misunderstanding when he doesn't connect in quite the typical way.

We're only on Day 3. Anything can happen. I'm just trying to keep my ears tuned, head clear, and heart steady, so I can help him the best way I possibly can, for the next 177 days, and well beyond.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Two Boys

We cracked open the door to the small, blessedly air-conditioned auditorium and found seats. The kids crunched on popcorn and sipped cool drinks as we gazed expectantly at the stage, where a "show" complete with animatronic farm creatures (and apparently farm fruits and vegetables as well), was about to begin.

I am not usually a big fan of these shows. We were at Storyland in New Hampshire. Picture Disney Land with no budget. It's a sweet place for kids say, 10 and under. There's the Fairy Tale section where you can visit the Three Little Bears' house or the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. There are kiddie rides and water rides and a cool new roller coaster to attract the older ones. The weather was fabulous and we were having fun; just hot and needing a break. So we ducked in to watch singing vegetables. I inwardly rolled my eyes wondering how long this was going to last.

Then I saw them, in the front row, off to the side and sitting angled so I could see them a bit better than everyone else in the front. I saw him first; the man in the wheelchair. He must have been close to fifty years old; perhaps with cerebral palsy or something that kept him in the chair and able to move his hands in a typical way; unable to speak the way most middle-aged adults would. What had to be his parents, both in their seventies, sat on either side of him, protectively. The mom gave him a small cloth so that he'd have something to hold and pull with his hands.

The show started, and it was every bit as corny as I knew it would be...singing tomatoes; a feisty blackbird; a cow telling bad jokes; some kind of slightly creepy scarecrow leading the whole thing.

The show excited the man in the chair. Only, the way he knew how to show his excitement was by rocking back and forth. His mother looked over at him, pleased, as if she'd brought him to a hundred shows like this. She had that knowing smile, that this is my son and I know my son and I know exactly what makes him happy.

I wondered, then. I wondered how many times they'd come here. How many times had they pushed their son-turned-man through this park, past the Cinderella Castle and the swan paddle boats, past the spinning Tea Cups he could not ride and the lemonade stands and kids dancing in the splash pad and the Three Little Pigs? I didn't know. They could have been on vacation and just visiting the area. But something told me more likely not.

In the middle of the show, the side door opened and in came another family. A grandfatherly type was pushing a boy in a wheelchair who had to be maybe eight. They walked in just past the other family and sat down, right in the front row. Before they'd turned him to face the stage, I'd caught a glimpse of the boy's face; eyes happy, eager to see the show. He was the kind of boy Anna would have thought (although she'd be embarrassed to admit to her parents) was cute. He had a backpack slung over the handles of the chair. I stared at it, completely forgetting the farm show and its messages about needing sun and rain for fruits and veggies to grow.

The older man had gotten agitated for a moment. He began to rise out of his chair in an uneven manner, seeming uncomfortable. His dad tried to gently calm him as he looked around anxiously, with that glance that unmistakably said Is he disrupting people and How can I get him to calm down? He talked soothingly, quietly to his son, and the son sat back down. Relief filled the father's tired eyes.

I saw then the fatigue. The subtle hunch of both parents' shoulders. The weariness. The lines in their faces worn not just by age but by the work, day in and day out, of caring for their son, and yes, perhaps the wondering: We can't do this forever. What then for him?

The mother glanced for a moment over at the little boy in the wheelchair on the other side of her. She gave him a quick smile that he didn't notice. He was too busy watching the show.

The father gave the son the cloth again, to calm his busy hands. His eyes looked all around. I wondered how and what he was seeing; what he was thinking.

I knew when his parents looked at him, they saw not only the graying of his temples, but also someone like the boy just a few feet away. To a parent, in an instant years melt away and they see every stage of us; see us right to our core; remember our big eyes and innocence. They see what the rest of the world can't quite make out anymore.

I wished that elderly mother and father knew that they had been seen. I wished they knew they were being watched not with pity but with awe. I wished they knew they were sweet, precious reminders of the unending flow of unconditional love.

The curtain went down; the animatronics fell silent. Someone pushed the young boy ahead to meet the zany scarecrow. Behind, the mother, father, and son pushed in the chair held back; waited for others to go ahead. I wondered where they'd go next, in this park full of preschoolers chasing fairy tale dreams.

Outside, the sky was low in the sky, low near the mountains all around. And for a moment, everything was absolutely beautiful.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Battle in the Target Aisle

I don't know about anyone else, but about this time of year summer starts to feel rather long in the tooth.

Same could be said for me and the kiddos.

I love how the glare of Target lights exposes everything. There I was the other day, thinking that the four of us got out of the house looking halfway presentable. Or not thinking. Then walking past the Dollar Deal section everything became embarrassingly clear.

Ethan had thrown on old ripped jeans for some reason, although he had decided to leave the cowboy hat in the car. How had I missed how badly his nails needed trimming? Anna had a purple stain on her shirt that she claimed was always there, was part of the design (not buying that one).

The kids were shoving at each other as if they'd never been taught simple manners, loud enough to make people turn heads. I needed a haircut in the worst kind of way and my flip-flops were falling apart. And Chloe, Little Miss Teething Chloe, had completely soaked the top of her outfit with drool. Not only that, but the cute little piece, the one with red bows, had some kind of orange stain I hadn't noticed before. I'm guessing peaches. Or sweet potatoes.

I looked at all of us as we trudged with the herd and wondered when we'd drifted just a few shades from Honey Boo-Boo. Then I remembered: it's that whole third child thing.

Baby #3 is nearing seventh months old, and you know, it hasn't been as tornadic as some had warned. Maybe it's because I have two older helpers. Maybe it's because I'd steeled myself after hearing so many stories of Armageddon. We're getting by. Food is on the table. You can see the floor (usually). I'm not weeping throughout the day (anymore, since Chloe blessedly climbed out of that constant-newborn-fussiness stage). And we all absolutely, wholeheartedly love her to pieces.

But some things have suffered. I guess, when a third one comes along, and you throw into the mix starting a business and my own freelance work and summertime with everyone home, certain things fall by the wayside. Things like anything remotely close to a decent night's sleep (yeah, look at those circles). Vigilance as far as how the kids are dressing or not dressing themselves. Timely haircuts. Regular exercise. Getting lost in a good book. Actually printing out photos of the baby. Tackling dust bunnies. Tackling everything I've wanted to organize for the past, oh, 10 years.

I've tried (how I've tried!) to let the little things slide in place of the big ones. I'd rather my kids remember childhood not as mom always cleaning but mom reading them a book; taking them for walks. I've tried to not spend every day yelling...nagging...fuming. There are days I get to the finish line and think "That wasn't half-bad."

Then there are days like the moment in Target when all I can hear is the "You should" voices. They are the ones that are never forgiving, that are void of all grace. You should make sure the kids aren't looking like total slobs. What if you run into someone you know? You should do a better job saving money. You could probably get better deals elsewhere if you did your research. You should exercise and get out and do one of those zany 5K's like everyone else is doing. You should pick up more freelance work to bring in some extra money. You should be a better friend...wife...daughter...mother.

A little bit of honest self-examination is healthy. The problem for me is that the "you should's" never travel alone but rather in hordes; a huge, loud bundle of guilt. Sometimes I wonder if this is what separates pessimists from optimists. Optimists see one negative at a time, and it's usually the challenge of the present moment. Then there are those of us who have their faults roll at them like a snowball rushing down a hill, a catalogue of failures ever-increasing in size. In those moments I see everything, from my disorganized garage to the weeds in my yard, through the lens of You Could Be Doing Better.

In those moments I look and see my six-month-old sitting in the cart, minus one of those fancy soft coverings to block out all the germs, and chewing on my car keys. Yes, my car keys, because she's fussy and it's the one thing making her happy. And for a moment I fight the sound of a hundred judgments.

I wish I could say that at Target the other day, I had a eureka moment. That my child looked up at me with her one-tooth grin and all was made well. That another child slipped his sticky hand into mine or I heard the sound of their laughter and lights beamed down from heaven, and suddenly, the epiphany came that this is all worthwhile, that I am embracing the small things and appreciating every precious moment.

No. Instead the kids asked for things and I gently told them no. And with this thousandth moment of fighting to not sink, I once again learned I'm getting better at fighting. By the grace of God, and I mean literally, the grace of God, I'm learning to let the wave roll over me and find myself still standing. I'm still standing and learning to love who I am, who we are, even in our Honey Boo Boo moments. I'm learning to listen to that voice; the whisper: It's okay, Baby Girl. Ever so slowly, I'm learning to laugh. I'm learning to forgive. I'm learning to accept that one day at a time is not just a cliché and that sometimes even trying and failing is enough.

I thank my third little one for this gift, along with the many more she has given us. And for other moms (and people) out there overpowered at times by the relentless voice of the You Shoulds, I pray it for you, too.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

History Lessons

"Can we play that game again?" Ethan asked me as we walked down the dirt road that leads from our camp in Maine to the convenience store.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. "You mean 1750?" I asked. He nodded.

"Well, Ethe, sure," I said slowly. The last time we'd played, he'd had a bit of trouble, and he'd had absolutely no idea.

"1750" was a game I'd come up with last time we were up in Maine, the month before. I'd call it half pretend play, half-history lesson. Essentially I picked a random year (in this case, 1750), and told the kids as we were walking we had to pretend we'd taken a time machine from that year and had ended up in 2014. We had to look around and see which things were the same; which things we didn't understand.

I knew Anna would love the game. She "gets" history now. Last year we went to Old Sturbridge Village (a recreated 1830s town complete with characters in period costumes) and I'd practically had to drag her out of each home. She wanted to read every sign; devour every fact. We've been watching "Crash Course" history lessons with John Greene on YouTube. She's starting to have a greater sense of where we are in the present, and how things have progressed and changed in myriad ways.

Ethan? Well...

History is so abstract. It's not a subject I would expect to particularly interest him, or one he'd be able to pick up on quickly.

He is trying, though.

The last time we'd played the game, Anna and I assumed our characters from 1750. We called out in amazement at the power lines; wondered at what the numbers and letters (phone numbers and website addresses) meant on another camp's For Sale sign; and of course jumped in horror when a car roared past us.

Ethan watched closely and began to imitate what we were doing. "Look at this leaf!" he cried out, picking a stray one off the ground. "Why is it like this?" Then he stopped at a puddle. "Why is this puddle so deep?!" he cried.

I'd tried to explain to him that we were looking for things from our world today that they wouldn't have had in 1750, that hadn't been invented yet. That's why we were acting surprised. "Someone from 1750 would have never seen power lines," I'd said.

This kind of perspective-taking is just a wee bit beyond where he is right now. I can't blame him. How many 6-year-olds are students of history, anyway (or 36-year-olds, really)?

So here we were again, a month later, and Ethan really wanted to play the game. "Look at that!" he exclaimed, pointing out an old metal plow that one of the nearby camps has displayed as a lawn ornament of sorts. Great. More confusion.

"That actually might have been around in 1750," I said, wracking my brain. "That's an old fashioned plow the farmers used to use in the fields."

He picked up a rock. "Wow, what's this?" he asked in the mock amazement he'd seen Anna and I show.

"Ethe," I sighed with a smile. "They had rocks back then. Rocks have always been here. So have leaves, and trees. People didn't invent those things...they're not like computers or cars."

After a little bit we were too busy slapping at mosquitos to play our game anymore. Ethan apparently still had history on the mind, though. The next evening we drove past a barn with cows wandering around the field outside.

"Look at those cows! Look at them moving fast like that!" Apparently he'd only ever noticed cows sitting and chewing, not actually walking.

"They didn't have cows like these in the olden days," he said with authority. "The cows in the olden days weren't as fast as these ones."

I started to say something about cows always being cows, but threw in the towel and sat back to enjoy the rest of the ride. We're just not there yet. Ethan may never be a passionate student of history, but some day, the switch will flip, and he'll understand just a little bit more. For now, we'll just sit tight and the rocks; the leaves; the speed of cows. Whatever year we're in, it's an amazing world.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Eyes of a Child

Saturday morning. Another string of beautiful summer days. Chloe and I sat outside. I put her right on the grass so she could get used to the way it feels. The wind swayed the top of the pine tree that borders the neighbor's yard back and forth, back and forth. Chloe looked at it in amazement; looked up at a puffy cloud above that drifted ever-so-slowly.

"That's a cloud," I said in my teacher/mommy voice, marveling, as I always do, at what life must be like to see everything new. Every time the wind sways the trees; every reflection and light and shadow, gives her pause.

I wonder how sweet life would be, to see that way.

I think about the paradox, the way children simultaneously make us speed up and slow down. The toddler that dawdles over every leaf and crack in the sidewalk can infuriate us or cause us to take that pudgy, sticky hand and meander. The littlest ones send us on a quest to rush through shopping before they're hungry or get home quickly because they need their nap or wolf down the restaurant meal before they get bored. Life now with three (including Chloe's extra appointments for her hip and now her flat little head) mean my old-fashioned calendar is flooded with ink. There's always somewhere to go.

Yet little ones remind us there's always time to drink in this world the way they do.

The other evening after Chloe was asleep the big kids and I spread out a blanket on the lawn and watched it get dark while reading bedtime stories. This is something we'd never done, and would you believe I didn't even think of the idea? I saw it on a blog. Someone's blog. How could I have missed it?

How could I have forgotten some of my favorite childhood moments? Winter walks with my dad over frozen streams to the old "Indian caves," where we'd roast hot dogs over a little campfire. Skipping rocks on Flying Pond. The nights we'd be outside just looking at the stars, and my dad would remind me that we were looking up at history, that the light from those stars had taken so long to reach us that they might not even be there anymore.

Our stars here are muted by the lights of Hartford, by the megalopolis that is the east coast. But they are there. And although Anna started to freak at the sight of swooping bats and Ethan kept thinking the sound of planes soaring low to land at nearby Bradley airport was thunder, for a few moments, there was quiet; there was still. And then someone saw the first star appear. Then another. I noticed my kiddos saw them first, and felt a little sad at my aging eyes. But just for a moment. Then I told them the story of the stars' light, just like my dad in another long-ago backyard. I remembered that we can always, always see like a child. If we want to.