Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Academy Award Nominations Part 1

Jennifer Hudson sings “YOU’RE GONNA LOVE (deep breath) MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!” and it sounds like our family theme song.

The girls love an audience. Nora takes my hand, draws me to sit down in the front of the couch. "Seeet down, Mama!" She disappears behind the couch, then holds up a toy car, peeks over, looking at Randy and me. This is as far as she goes, as much as she knows how to make a puppet show.

I fill in the blank, narrate, “Once upon a time there was a car. And he met another car.” A purple one appears on top of the couch, next to the first. “So they had a race. On your mark, get set, go!” The two cars travel along the back of the furniture. One falls off the couch into a plant. “Then the other car helped pull him out!” I suggest. We are delighted when her little cars act out the story. Imaginative play is new to her and both thrilling and deeply satisfying to us to watch.

When one of the girls is especially needy, and I need to lighten us both up, I sing: “Attention and praise, attention and praise, we will give you attention and praise!” I sing this song with utterly sincere affection, just as I did years ago to our chocolate lab. It works pretty well when Mia is sitting on my foot, her arms and legs wrapped tight as a cast around my leg as I try to walk. “Mommy! I want to BE with you!” she wails, as if it’s visiting day at the military boarding school for toddlers.

How is their need for love any different than mine? Than anyone’s? Is it just more bald-faced? What are blogs but a plea for strokes? We all experience neediness or emotional vulnerability. What is so scary about it? Why do we recoil at a stranger’s desperation?

Hip Mama and Alternadad to the contrary, parenthood is the antithesis of cool. What is cool, after all, but irony turned into lifestyle? And if modern irony is all about detached observing of the messiness of emotions, then parenthood requires us to do nothing but the opposite: attach, attach, attach, physically, emotionally, permanently.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Words Can Help

Mommy is better. No more screaming. Somewhere between the Mommy Mantra book (that reminds me just getting by is incredible) and a therapy appointment, somehow between the lengthening days and upcoming plans for a birthday dinner out, I’ve gotten bigger. I feel bigger when I am with the girls, more capable of calm and foresight. The grown-up.

My mantras this week: Balance, patience, creativity and compassion.

Balance the big bad moments with lots of enthusiastic love and big family fun. Hold the faith that they will remember the good ninety-five percent.

Patience is needed for not just the interminable games (Four rounds of “Candyland?” Piece of cake) but the long afternoons and the long months where I fear some window of opportunity is being overlooked as it slowly closes. This is guilt from looking at the Montessori catalog of child-sized mops and brooms, buckets and baskets. From remembering the quiet and busy Chiaravalle Montessori classroom.

When I was teaching high school kids it was a comfort on a bad day to think, “at least we read a few pages together.” We were making slow progress, even if I had to skip Act Four of Romeo and Juliet (Yes! I’ll admit it! Go read it yourself - Not a lot happens!) It’s more difficult to see progress with the girls who are both leaping ahead (Look at the pencil lines on the inside of the closet door that mark their heights! Nora said “costume” yesterday!) and yet thrive on mind-numbing repetition – the same simple books, the same simple games, the same circle of pre-school, library, Starbucks, home. The coming home rituals (take off your boots, put away your coat, wash your hands) are what they expect and need, even as they protest. I know this, but oh how I’d love to talk to someone about re-reading Katherine Graham’s Personal History, about Schubert Lieder.

Creativity give me hope. When both the girls are flopping down on the lobby floor after a noon production of “Cinderella,” both crying and both wanting to be carried, I try, “I can’t do this, you’re going to have to help me.” No go. That means nothing to them. I sit down with them, hold up a cracker and say, “this is a magic cracker. It will give you the energy you need to walk to the car.” And somehow it worked.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Twice in Two Days?

Starbucks. Nora is home with the babysitter. I’ve just picked up Mia from school. We park in the first space in front of the door. Inside, most of the tables are filled.

In line, she sees the blue snowflake cookie and says she wants it. I say, no you can have a bagel or one of these cookies. I want her to have something whole grain. She starts to scream. We go back and forth a bit, I tell the man in back of us to go ahead. “Stop screaming,” I say. She doesn’t. Twice in two days?

“Okay,” I say and pick her up to leave. “NO!” she cries with panic in her voice. At the glass front door, she holds on to the doorframe. I unpeel her hands and I'm trembling. I try to put her down, I need to put my magazine in the car, she collapses, crying, on the icy sidewalk. I pick her up, say, “Breathe through your nose. Let it out through your mouth.” “I can’t! I’m sick!”

I’m beeping the car door open with my remote and Mia tries to open the Starbucks door again. I turn and grab her, try the car door handle and it’s locked. The handle refuses to give, slips out of my hand with a sickening plastic thump. “F*************K!!!” I scream in desperation.

I get the door open, throw in the magazine, take Mia around to her side. I’m crying by this time. I can hear myself futilely pleading, “Stop it!” She’s crying and kicking as I fasten her in the carseat. I don’t know what to do with her right now. I’m just strapping her down to buy some time. I put my face next to hers and tell her to breathe. I’m telling myself to breathe.

“The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t care what people think. I don’t want to cause distress or anxiety in other people, but I have to work this out and I may be working this out in some not pretty ways.

I lean close to Mia and I consider my options. I could do without the coffee. I could drive somewhere else, hell, we could go through the drive-through right here. But I’m not feeling embarrassed. I don’t have the energy for embarrassment right now.

“I want the cookie with the white stripes,” sniffs Mia, calmer. It’s one of the options I gave her. “Okay,” I say. “But no crying and no screaming in the store. Do you understand?” “Yes.”

Will you believe that we ordered and ate without further incident? The counterman was completely professional. I help her take off her boots, the snow pants, then reboot. I tell her she is like the bunny in the Bing Bunny book: “Dungarees! You can’t put your shoes on before your dungarees!” Her convulsive biting of the cookie bar has a slightly disturbing recklessness. I tell her to slow down a little and she does. She drinks half her milk and shivers. “I’m cold.” “Do you want to sit in my lap?” I ask, feeling sure that she does. She does. I hold her, rub her back and her arms.
She gets up to go to the bathroom and is able to open the door by herself, pull down her pants and get started before I catch up with her, praise her with “Good job, big girl!” Growing independence, yes, but her walking away from the table and my sitting there for a couple of moments before I get up to follow her felt like a slightly premature step in the gradual process of innocence loss.

Would you believe we then drove to the park and pulled our blue plastic sled up the little bumps of hills, up the big mountain of a hill and slid down together, calling, “Weeee!” and laughing? The clear sky was so bright, the white snow was so bright, everything silhouetted against the brightness wore a dark halo.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sold Out

Day off school for Dr. King. The second snow of the year. A child’s size snow, tall as the matted grass blades that are still persistently green.

We are going to a magic show at the Winnetka Community House. I’m having a fairly healthy morning; I get an uninterrupted shower and there are a few moments of quiet while Mia giggles at the rabbits Max and Ruby on TV and Eleanor putters around the playroom. Mia tolerates me putting on her snowpants. They turn her into a chubby bunny, but she immediately wants them off. I’m not in a fighting mood, okay. Eleanor resists putting on her boots, cries, “Cars movie! Cars movie!”

“Not until tonight, Nora.” The magic show starts in ten minutes. All is going well until they are waiting at the door and I’m about to grab my backpack and it’s not sitting at the backdoor as usual. I hurry around the house looking for it, feeling the tightness rising up my chest into my neck and to blow it off, I yell “F***! WHERE IS THE G**D*** BACKPACK?” I don’t want Eleanor to take her shoes off again. It must be in the car.

We go outside. I’m pretty calm, letting Mia make footprints in the snow while I convince Nora to climb in the carseat herself. I leave the garage to fetch Mia and see she’s hiding, announce to the empty backyard, “Where is Mia? I see some footprints! I think I will follow them to see if I can find her!” I chase her down, both of us laughing a little, she makes me laugh again when she discovers how to use the handle on the bicycle pump.

The backpack is in the car. The magic show is sold out. I don’t even mention it to the girls. There are couches and benches to climb on and slide off, pesky boots to remove. I get my best thought of the day, remembering the community house has an open gym some mornings. It starts in forty minutes says the desk guy. We find a vending machine, Mia gets to put in the money and press the buttons, then put in more money and press it again when the damn bag of Sweet and Salty hangs suspended at a breathtaking angle behind the glass. It is that kind of day.

I’m rolling with it, we’re all content to sit and eat our snack -- 300 calories?!! Saturated fat!?! What the hell? It’s raisins and peanuts, what do they do, have to spill fat all over it to keep it from rotting in the vending machine?

We can hear the crowd of children on the other side of the wall chanting along with the amplified magician voice. Then there’s the sound of a high pitched buzzing music. Mia looks at me with a smile of recognition and says, “Kazoo.” When the hidden audience bursts into wild laughter, Mia laughs too at the sound and I think my heart will break for my amazing and sweet and easy daughter.

A group of men, some stooped, one with a mask on the top of the head, wander in slowly. Their faces are blank but they return our smiles. A young African American woman, must be their group leader, rushes in from behind them, heads to the door of the auditorium, is greeted with the usher’s “The show is sold out.” Oh cold. If I were her, I would burst into tears. The men wait patiently while she makes a phone call, asks the usher if there’s another show, gets nothing. She herds her charges back out the door. “We’re in the same boat,” I offer for consolation. She replies, “I hope the bus is still there!” My girls suddenly seem the lightest of burdens.

In Bethany Casarjian and Diane Dillon’s book, Mommy Mantras: Affirmations and Insights to Keep You From Losing Your Mind, the authors suggest meditating on the phrase, “I am not this feeling” when you are at your worst. To separate yourself from your emotion instead of imagining it determines you.

To kill time, we make up a story about a turtle named Mack who outgrows his shell and picks a new rainbow shell at the Turtle Shell store. It’s 11:00 and the gym is still dark. A dad points out the sign: “Open Gym, Monday 11:30.” Oh.
“Girls, let's go have lunch first!”
“I’m not hungry!”

We go outside and play some more in the snow, making footprints and tiny foot high snowman out of three piled snowballs. We play with the water fountain. We eat more peanuts and raisins. The gym doors open early, thank god. The girls are ecstatic, stripping off coats, shoes, socks, throwing themselves into the bouncy machine, sliding around the floor on low-wheeled carts, kicking the rubber balls with aim that makes me proud.

Somewhere in the fun and the noise, my blood sugar level descends to intercept Mia’s rising frenzy and we enter a crisis. Twice, I haul myself into the trembling bouncer to console her. Twice she runs away from me. I wonder if I am chasing her, insisting we leave for my own benefit or for hers. Is chasing her worth it? How bad could it be if we stayed as she tearfully insists? I take Eleanor out of the gym, sit behind the glass and watch Mia play as I wrestle to put on the baby’s socks, shoes, snowsuit of apparent thorns. Mia is chasing a girl around the bouncer, sitting in the doorway to keep other kids from coming in. I have to go get her. I pull her out, gather the backpack, the discarded sweater, my shoes. I’m considering calling Randy, calling 911, starting to scream. I do none of these. I carry Mia out, protesting. She’s four, I’m thinking. She’s too old for this. I pull her shirt down over the angular bruise on her back that I imagine the adults in the gym seeing and wondering. She lies on the floor crying loudly, I go back to grab Eleanor. While I force Mia into her shoes, Eleanor wets the entire front of her sweater in the drinking fountain.

No one offers to help. Well, the man at the counter told me twice there were tables for eating lunch upstairs. He had a soft voice and as we left, Mia struggling under one of my arms, he waves a merry goodbye. I can only look at him and shake my head. Sir, that is so not what I need right now.

She goes limp, refuses to walk, insists on being carried, then screams in my ear when I pick her up. I cover her mouth, snap, “don’t scream!” Outside, in a more normal tone, she says she wants to walk in the snow. I know that this is dangerous, she could easily take off in the opposite direction. I let her walk a little, chase her down, hold her wrist tightly as we walk the blocks to the car. “Ow! You’re hurting me!”

Then, “I’m hungry.” Yes, dear, you are. We stop at a junky little diner, full of kids and moms, all the empty tables full of dirty dishes. The girls watch a train circle the room near the ceiling, I sit dull, without ideas. We eat. “You were hungry, weren’t you?” I ask her. “Mm-hm,” she nods.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Child's Game

“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Dance around the roses. Fill your pockets with flowers. You live, then you are dust.

Here, in a simple chiming chant, is the story of the life cycle, the circle that is our human condition: beautiful flowing life that moves inexorably toward the inevitable, inescapable, unavoidable end, the fall.

It’s a child’s dance, danced wholeheartedly with a child’s enthusiasm and a child’s understanding that we take our pleasures now (roll them up in a round ball, the poet says to his coy mistress) because we’re going to fall down in a second. And when we do, it’s the most thrilling part.

When I play this game with the girls, I want to sing the song to the end, remain upright until the proper time, the very last word. Eleanor and Mia insist on flinging themselves to the ground early, letting loose their knees and hips in a floppy collapse, laughing. Then they want do it all over and over again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

One of My Favorite Films

In Richard Pearce’s 1979 film, Heartland, Conchata Ferrel plays a widow who comes to Wyoming with her daughter to keep house for a Scottish farmer played by Rip Torn. The farmer and the widow are married in a lovely scene. Then a harrowing sequence shows the woman in painful, extended labor, alone with her young daughter in the middle of winter. Finally, victoriously, she gives birth. The baby dies in infancy. The young girl watches her mother mechanically scrub the wooden floor. Come spring, the woman is hanging wash with her daughter nearby when she suddenly collapses to her knees in wordless screams. The girl runs in fear to the farmer who appears out the barn door. He holds her, but lets his wife pick herself up with the help of the washline and go on with her work.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Letter to Auntie Rena


Oh Happy Day! How great to hear from you! Your timing is perfect. Eleanor's birthday is tomorrow and we are busy busy making kitty cat cupcakes and doggie donuts (Nora tries to say "dog food" when we ask her what she is getting tomorrow for her birthday. Unfortunately, it comes out sounding a lot like "dog poo.") and signs for the front door - (Mia decided the wording so our guests will be greeted with "NORAS BDAY SHES 2")

Wish you were here to see it all, but I don't wish you away from paradise.

Mia's spring break starts on Friday, March 9 and we need to be back by Sunday, March 18. We haven't booked flights yet. I don't see us using all that time but that's our window. Thank you again for making us feel so welcome - we can't wait.

I had an old address for the Central message center Centro in Todos, so I sent you a Christmas card. I just guessed on the postage - it will be good luck and A Christmas Miracle! if it gets to you.

I love the sound of your neighbors. From far away, it sounds awesome, perhaps it is a different experience right next door.

The girls and I were eating a mango the other day and I told them some people, like Aunt Rena and Uncle Brent, can just go out in the backyard and pick mangoes to eat, like we pick up pinecones. They were impressed, I think. Who knows? Last night I was reading an article (from Best Nonrequired Reading, 2006) and it said children have the hyper awareness of falling in love every single day. So learning about mangoes is akin to taking a step is akin to getting your mind blown by every bit of this amazing world.

xxoo cindy

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Big Kid Known as Mommy

Kids keep you young, they say.

But sometimes mommy activities drag me back towards my youth no farther than the teen years.

Mia sits on my lap, laughing at the photographs of tiny animals on the Cute Overload website. With the obnoxiousness of a bored fifteen year old, I type in the Comments section, in all caps, the most obvious statement about each picture: "THE RAT IS HOLDING A CHEERIO!" "THE FERRET HAS A FEZ ON HIS HEAD!" "HE'S A DUCK! AND HE'S SITTING ON THE CAT!" I pretend I'm a wide-eyed rube with an over-bite, pointing at the funny on the screen.

Or, like a sarcastic and sardonic high schooler, I find double meaning in Nora's bedtime story, "Where is Baby's Mommy?" When the narrator asks, "Is she in the closet?" I imagine a recently out, and consequently, newly single, lesbian mommy. When the next page asks, "is she under the table?" I imagine her new drinking habit. At "Is Mommy behind the shower curtain?" I picture the little toddler discovering her there last week with "Aunt Sheila." The "alternate" reading starts to take over in my mind. By the time we get to "Is she under the covers? Yes!" how can you not feel sympathy for this little guy with the slightly depressed mom, adjusting to her new wild lifestyle?

The message of this book is no longer just a simple tale of hide and seek, it's a whole expose of the cover-ups and silly explanations we use when caught in grown up situations. "Oh honey, we're just playing!"

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

We Say the Damndest Things

Mia: "Mommy, this is a new way to say 'no thank you.' 'May I please no for that snack.' "

When I acted out the "hi hi hi" lyrics in The Hop Hop Hibbity Song in the car, she says, "I thought you were waving to the world."

"Mia, what did you call that place we went to eat with Tonya?" "The Yucky Pwatter. And it's a restaurant."

"Mia, what's a good thing that happened to you today?" "Miss Katie taught me to yearn." "What did she teach you to yearn?" "Everything."

"Mommy, I'm a princess and a scuba diver and I want to show you my princess clothes under my scuba diver clothes because I need to save the animals that are in a deep deep cave under the water."

Mia says, "Oh Daddy I'm going to tell you about something at school today. Something SCABBY! There was a fire part. And a loud sound from the ding-dong bell. And this girl cried. And we went outside."
"Did you hold hands?"

"Midver," says Mia, making up words. "Gwimper. Be-ah."

"Why is there no gravity in space?"

During a reluctant and anxious trip to the bathroom that interrupted her play: "My fart says don't move my game!"

I'm getting more open with my tantrums. I'm using my words, too. When I scream, "Don't!" I add, "Be nice to Mommy!" Is it me against them?

"Ah choo!" Eleanor says. "Howdy how." "Ma-man," with a French accent. "D'accord!" "I say! Boom. Taste. Seek!" This is all play. But to communicate, she uses insistent monkey grunts and whines, with vague hand gestures.

I tell Mia to look at her candy watch (the new technological advancement in candy necklaces) and tell me what time it is. She says, "It's a pair half a feckle."

When we decide to drive the hybrid to the farm for pumpkins instead of walking to the farmer's market, Mia says, "I'm glad we didn't walk. That was a tired idea."

"I want Gwitter and Be Gay!" chimes Mia from the back seat. The Dick Cavett theme song is her new favorite. Strapped down in her carseat, she dances with her arms and her head and sings "Ha ha ha ha-ha ha!" But Mia is no Parisian courtesan who poorly feigns shame of her flawless jewels. When she asks why the singing lady was laughing, I offered, "she is pretending that she is sad because she is lost, but she is really happy. That she's lost." "Oh," says Mia. When Mia sings it, she is glittering and gay and purely happy in the gymnastics of the tune. Not lost one bit.

Was that "Why'd he hurt the baby?" or "Riding Hood the Baby?"

November, 2006

Eleanor is saying about one new word every day. Today was "Chair" and "Chase." Yesterday it was "oops." This is as thrilling to us as if we were scientists making contact with a new life form. Well, that's what it is, isn't it?

The Orangutan and the Chimp
Mia chatters away as she plays, her voice high, then low, acting out little plays with her toy animals. Babbling to herself, immersed in play, she bounces around the room in a diaper, an alligator puppet on one hand. "Oh wow! A baby! What's your name? Mia? No, it's Nora." She switches to another voice, monster deep, "I'm going to chew on you!" Jocelyn and I eavesdrop and crack up.

Meanwhile, Nora studies a plastic toy .. a row of trapdoors that open to reveal tiny animal busts, a hall of presidents of the animal kingdom. She clucks quietly to herself, in a hen-like squat, slowly pressing, trying, thinking, processing.

Teach Your Children Well

Sometimes you just wish for wisdom.
"I want to count the money in my piggy banks and go buy a new toy," chants Mia over and over. Christmas was a week ago and she has acquired a taste for fresh packaging, that plastic smell.
"Mia, there are children who don't have as much as you do."
"Let's go to the store and buy them things!"
"Mia, if you don't like your old toys, we should give them to children who don't have what you have." (Wait a minute. What am I trying to teach here? Generosity or frugality?)
"We can give them this," she says, pulling out a tiny piece of inconsequential crap out of the toybox. "Or this," she adds, holding one of Eleanor's baby toys.
"Um, Mia, giving to others doesn't really mean much unless you give something that has meaning for you." (What? Is this a lesson about Anti-materialism? Giving? I'm confusing myself – what's she going to get out of this?)
"Okay, I know! We can give them this!" And she holds up a chestnut plastic horse. It's about twelve inches long, one fetlock is missing, another is held in place with blue masking tape. I received this horse as a Christmas present about thirty years ago and she knows it.
"I'll feel so sad when I give this horse away," she says sincerely and I'm shocked, not only by her utter lack of guile, but by her accidental logic and her unconscious grasp of irony. She just turned the tables on me and asked me to feel what she is feeling.
How do you do this parenting thing anyway?