May 25, 2006

The Natural World

A huge wind storm downed this pine tree in the summer of 2003, and I remember feeling simultaneously sad about its demise and happy that I'd have a chance to show our little guy the giant from a new angle. My relationship with the natural world is in great shape, and in this, as in so many other areas in my life, I have my parents to thank.

I grew up in suburbia. Foothill Road – actually at the foot of a hill – was a street that there was no reason to drive on... unless you lived there. The town, Big Flats, was and is a company town for Corning Glass Works, and there was pretty much no reason for it to be there except for that.

My parents transformed our "middle of nowheresville" childhood into a daily adventure by making sure we got out into it. We grew raspberries and blueberries in our backyard. We made regular pilgrimmages to the local Tanglewood Nature Center. In the wintertime, the entire family bundled up and went hiking off into the woods at the top of the neighborhood, tromping through the snow until we were too tired to go on, at which point my father would miraculously build a fire while my mother – no less miraculously – produced hotdogs and hot chocolate from somewhere.

Summers saw us heading off for one of the Finger Lakes, where we would toss a series of progressively larger sailboats into the water and head off for an adventure. When my dad showed me that you could actually watch for the wind? Well, there was pretty much nothing cooler than being a seven year-old who could scan the lake, yell out, "Here comes a gust!" and be right.

By the time I headed off for college, I understood that the Earth takes care of us, and that it needs to be a reciprocal arrangement. Not because of anything overt that had been taught me (although I did enjoy Earth Science), but because of the examples my parents had set. I didn't even know you could buy strawberries in the supermarket; when I left for college, every strawberry I'd ever eaten in my life had been handpicked by someone in my family.

We are raising our son in small town America. And although he's eaten a few store-bought strawberries, the evidence strongly suggests that he prefers them handpicked. Not to mention organic.

(Thanks to Mama Says Om for the inspiration.)

May 18, 2006

Guarding Against Ache

I cried on the way home tonight. Driving home from school. I was listening to the radio and cursing the rain when the news came on with yet another roadside bomb story in what seems like a never-ending line of roadside bomb stories. I listened a little more closely for a minute, trying to figure out if this particular news was news to me: with the time difference it’s sometimes hard to know where yesterday leaves off and today begins. And then I just lost it.

Stories about people weeping over a death in Iraq often include some detail of personal connection. The media struggle with the same challenge I faced, trying to distinguish one event from another. The nephew of a guy who swims at the same pool we do. A kid who went to the local high school. The third soldier from this state in the past month. Someone whose mother tried to talk him out of re-enlisting, followed by a sound clip of her trying to make sense of it all, explaining that he died for something he believed in. There’s usually a hook. But this is not one of those stories. I don’t have a reason for why this day, out of all the days since March 20th, 2003, my get-through-the-day veneer just slipped away in the mud.

Do I need a reason?

* * *

When I lived in Philadelphia – a great town that I would happily return to someday – I learned to keep my guard up. Not a lot. Not consciously. But more than I ever had before, growing up as I did in a town that was smaller than my freshman class at college. Because Philly is a big city, and when you live in a big city, you figure out how to be a little careful. At least I did. And then I moved back to a small town, this time in New Jersey. When I went back to Philadelphia to visit, I had a great time cruising past all my old haunts, proudly remembering back routes I’d devised to avoid the Schuylkill Expressway, visiting with friends, treating myself to my first cheesesteak in years. And I never really knew the extent to which my level of constant, subtle wariness had been elevated during my years in the City of Brotherly Love until that return visit, when I could feel it kicking back in.

* * *

The rain let up a bit once I got into Kendall Park. I turned off the radio, wiped my tears, and got home safely. After dinner and games, tooth-brushing and jammies, stories and kisses, I started in on lullabies. My son has been going through a Wizard of Oz phase, and I’ve been teaching him the words to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because I’ve just had it up to here with “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue – for a moment, I was flooded with this moment of remembering. I was right back in that fierce protective flare up in your heart that comes when you’re holding a baby and suddenly imagine a room full of generals pushing pins into a map. I could feel my throat tighten and the tears threatening to start up again.

My guard against the three-year ache that is the Iraq quagmire will probably go back up tomorrow. I think I’ll feel it.

Help change the course.
And thanks to Mama Says Om for the spark.

May 17, 2006

The Ache of Divergence

By night, as you know, I am a lunch-making, laundry-folding, story-reading Mommy. Okay, lunch-making, laundry-avoiding, story-reading Mommy. By day, can you believe it, I am a mildly zany college counselor.

During this time of year, I spend my work days frantically trying to squeeze in as many meetings with families of "rising seniors" as I can, reminding myself as the door to my office clicks shut that every story is a new story, and that just because I've helped folks walk down these paths before doesn't mean it isn't all new to them.

Lately, the hardest part of my job has been the ache that stays with me when it seems clear, even in that very first meeting when everyone's trying hard to smile and keep it together, that there are some families who are in for some rough sailing. Not the ones whose students are maybe not going to pass Chemistry after all. (Although that's a challenge, for sure.) Not the ones who have their hearts set on a school that's probably out of reach. (Hard, but generally a good long-term prognosis.) No, the families that have got my heart hurting are those in which the established parental definition of success seems in direct conflict with the student's developing definition of success. Student is a talented artist; parents won't even consider paying for something as crazily impractical as art school. Student has been swimming competitively all through high school and would like to stop now; parents are adamant that the student "play that card" and talk to the swim coach at every school they visit. Student is openly gay at school, but has begged us all to please not say anything to his/her parents for fear of being disowned.

For as long as we are blessed with the job of parenting, we have known that if we are fortunate, and if the the job is done well, our children will come fully into themselves and go on to live their own lives. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself." It sounds right, but clearly for some of the families in my office, it is a long way from feeling right. It's so hard -- maybe even impossible? -- to see the world through any lens other than your own. So hard to have all the infinite possibilities of your child's future start to narrow down into finite opportunities. So hard to stand on the shore, map in hand, and watch as the unbidden wind sends them sailing off into uncharted territory.

Several years before I became a parent, I went on an afternoon picnic with a friend and her two school-aged children. Watching the kids play in the sand, I asked her, "What are your hopes for them?" "I'd like for them to become productive citizens," she said. "Well of course," I said, "but I mean what else? Nothing more detailed than that?" "Nope," she replied with a smile.

Almost ten years later, I have finally realized that her response wasn't bereft of imagination. It was, instead, alive with room for growing, for changes in course, for collaboration. Now I'm thinking that the only way to lessen the odds of suffering the kind of heartache I witness and nurse each spring is to consciously work at expanding your idea of who your child might become. Even as every fiber of your being is longing to find an easy, well-trod, well-lit path to nudge them down.

Hope I can do it.

(Check out the other Mama Says Om contributors!)

May 10, 2006

Do It Again!

There's Fifi in all her glory, gamely taking on the mud pit at the top of the race course, and if that doesn't make you want to head off to the Kinetic Sculpture Race next year, maybe this will:

That's Hunka Hunka Burnin' Junka, one of my personal favorites. These guys really put a lot of love into their creation; I can still hear the roar of the crowd as they successfully navigated the tricky nautical section of the course:

OutSTANDING. Well worth the schlep down to Baltimore, especially since it meant that we got to hook up with Writing Tracy's fabulous family:

(Not my brother-in-law's actual hair.) This event is such a fabulous combination of brilliant design and inspired silliness; if you live anywhere within striking distance of Baltimore, I'd strongly encourage you to go see for yourself next year. Go ahead, sign up for an email reminder, you know you want to.

May 02, 2006

Shower Man

Good thing Tama was the one on bath duty the night THIS breakthrough happened. Because I would never have gone for it. Up until the day this picture was taken, D was a bath boy. All the way. Water on top of his head was a necessary evil to be endured as part of the hair washing ordeal. As you may remember from my previous post on the subject.

But Tama has this great knack for trusting his leadings and instincts whenever it doesn't seem like doing so will result in actual harm, and thank goodness she does.

Tonight, halfway through his shower, D realized that one of his legs had gotten pretty scratched up over the course of his race-running, tree-climbing day. And suddenly the shower seemed dangerous again. "The shower is hurting my leg!" he yelled. On duty on the other side of the curtain, I asked if he would like to switch to a bath. He blinked as if it was an effort to even remember what a bath was, and then quickly said, "Yes, please." He then spent a pruney half-hour gleefully reacquainting himself with his pirates and boats, wailing piteously when it was time for him to get out.

So he's mostly a shower man. But also still a bath boy.