Passeth all understanding
Elementary school art classroom
Helping with Charlie's school's Peace Tiles project
Okay, everybody, come sit in a circle. Circle. No, circle. That's the round one...So now that you're all seated, let's talk about what represents peace to you. ...Nice. The way you describe that, I can almost see it. A swim in the lake on a hot day sounds soothing. Good one -- I like fireflies at twilight, too. Oh, yeah, snuggling in front of the fire with a pet...sunsets...sure... Ah. Well. Yes. I, too, have always found hard-boiled eggs to be...peaceful...I guess.
Now we're going to start on our collages. At each table there's a stack of magazines, and we have paper, paint, fabric...all sorts of...sure, I'd be happy to help you find some pictures related to your peaceful idea. Let me just look here. You know, I can't seem to find any pictures of semi trucks, but...oh, you found one of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Way to be flexible! That's like peace on wheels right there. ...Meaty peace.
Ah, I see you're already cutting some stuff out. What was your peaceful thought? Oh, right, the ocean -- when you said that in the circle I could just imagine myself sitting on the beach with the waves lapping at my toes, too. I...huh. I didn't imagine sharks, though. Wow, you sure found...a lot of them. Yeah, the red paint is over there, but I really think the picture already looks exciting enou...well, okay, now, isn't that vivid. ...Yeah, you'll want to let that dry.
Oh, yeah, there are a lot of pictures torn out of that National Geographic, huh? Well, I'm not exactly sure why. I guess someone else wanted to use them in their peace collage.
I agree, it's really cool how that snake is completely misshapen by...whatever rodent it just swallowed. So do you think that's...peaceful? Well, but even though it swallowed the...armadillo?...whole, without chewing, it's still...right, nature in general is something that makes us think of peace, but...wow, you certainly did a careful job cutting around its fangs.
I'd add the dripping venom later. Not today.
But seriously, folks, I'm here till recess
Speaking of trying hard, Charlie and his class were charged with the task of doing a report on notable women for women's history month. Charlie's choice surprised no one, though his title did strike me as maybe a little too hip for the room:
Marie Curie: Radiation Lady
The "trying hard" part wasn't the research he did, grumbling the entire time. It wasn't the exquisite restraint Paul exercised in getting him to organize his notes into some semblance of coherence. It wasn't the long self-sacrificing dive I took — "NOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooo!" — between him and the laptop to prevent him from adding "Gangnam Style" as the soundtrack to his slides.
No, the "trying hard" was how resolutely I stood in my refusal to let him add to his scripted talk, "So really, when you think about it, she was actually kinda asking for it."
If ten years of blog posts here have taught us nothing else, by now we've all learned that I'm sometimes an asshole. Do not worry: despite how seldom I post these days, I'm in no danger of forgetting that. Parenting reminds me regularly.
I've been fretting a fair amount about how Charlie doesn't want to do anything hard. In that he is truly my son; I never wanted to spend time practicing things that didn't immediately come easily, either. You know how they say that the things that make you crazy in other people are actually things that bother you about yourself? Not completely true — pretty sure I'm not the one who comes into the office in the morning and turns on lite jaaaaaazz — but, sure, okay, a little bit.
Anyway, it had kind of been eating at me, this worry that my kid was never going to buckle down and do anything tough, to keep after something and master it, to learn the value of good old American stick-to-it-iveness, the pleasure and reward of hard work. Yes, like his Puritan forebears! Who soberly toiled their whole lives long, seeking only to amplify the glory of God, with the Xbox only on weekends.
Now, first of all, what an asshole stance that is. Don't we all mostly just want to do what's easy and fun? Do I expect my eight-year-old to be magically different from — better than — almost every other kid in the universe? Is it reasonable to think he should be innately better at that shit than I am after 42 years of practice?
So that's bad enough. But the real asshole part is that it recently struck me, shortly after a parent/teacher conference, that I've had it all absolutely wrong.
We have these conferences regularly as part of Charlie's 504 plan to check in on which accommodations are helpful, which need adjustment, and exactly which awful thing I should dwell on every night at 4 AM for the month until the next conference. Over the last three or four months there have been some real improvements — some slow but perceptible changes in his ability to participate in the class, in his self-regulation, in his impulse control, in his capacity to just...hold it together. To get through the day.
The result is that with the help of meds and some classroom supports, Charlie is mostly managing himself, to the extent that there are no longer insanely detailed behavior charts sent home — seriously, at one point there was a chart for which facial expressions he was using, like, "Oh! Hey, good work: I see you were merely 'mutinous' today!" My heart no longer races fight-or-flight-style when the phone rings during the day. (My palms do not sweat. They glow.) Among his peers, his behavior is rarely...let us say notable. Even a quick note from the teacher is unusual these days.
And after a couple of months of this gradual progress, after a conference where we were actually able to focus more on his learning than on his hyperactivity, his impulse control, and his oh-my-God-stop-with-the-armpit-farts-the-entire-class-has-moved-on, it suddenly occurred to me: none of that comes naturally to him. None of it is easy. Forget riding a bike or stepping through a tae kwon do pattern or improving his handwriting; every day of his eight-year-old life, he is practicing something hard.
Dear Mom (writing about Mom) writing about Mom on the iPhone
These days I don't usually get too exercised about mom-on-mom atrocities. You know: the mommy wars. Momtroversy! Hand-to-hand mombat! ...OkayI'llstopnow.
...Momnia Brawlia in tres partes diviOKAY.
It's not so much that I feel that hot-button topics don't apply to me, because Marissa Meyer and I have a lot in common and I plan to give her a call next time I feel like getting my peasant on, see if she wants to bump panniers or something. It's more, I think, that I feel comfortable.
I don't have a lot to fight over, not a lot I'm ambivalent about. I don't feel the urge to argue about what goes on in my life. The need I might once have had to defend a position is satisfied now by living it. When it comes to caring what other moms do, or what others think about me, I'm as disengaged as one of Marie Antoinette's cows, as immune to controversy as her pretty pink sheep.
So it surprised me to get so annoyed about a piece that was making the rounds last week, the one about the mom on her iPhone. Yet get about it so annoyed I did do. First of all, don't call me Momma. I spell it Mama, and it's pronounced I'll thank you not to patronize me. Second, I found the sanctimony of it repellent. Third, the implication that every moment is golden and not to be missed strikes me as disingenuous, although I do agree that watching a four-year-old stick his finger up his nose all the way up to his elbow is more gripping, in its way, than anything a smartphone can easily serve up, possibly with the exception of a video of same set to K-pop. Fourth — and this is the biggie — I reject the notion that I should always be available as an audience, that my kids should be entitled to endless applause, and that they should get positive reinforcement for expecting it.
Now pretend there's a paragraph here explaining what I don't mean by that last. I mean, look, I'll gladly watch you twirl once. I'll even watch you do it twice, to verify that in fact your twirling only improves as you work to hone your talent, which is, I agree, prodigious. And if you're Ben in your pink sequined skirt, I'll even give you three more times, because, child, you are hilarious. But beyond that — well, anyway, are we good here? Okay, moving on.
So that post made me crotchety, and I know I'm not alone in that, as I saw several rebuttals posted in a much more timely fashion than this one. (What. I was busy having my farthingale rewired, installing new rebar in my stomacher, and getting my wig sprayed for silverfish.) I was glad to see so many dissenting opinions, because it seems to me that sistermothercommunityhood is only powerful as long as we're willing to call each other out on our bullshit. But I was chagrined to see so many of them miss what I felt was the point.
The responses that disappointed me all boiled down to this premise: What if the trope on the bench with the phone were doing something important? She could be answering e-mail from work, so as to keep the job that puts food on the table. She could be scheduling therapy appointments for her child, who has, I don't remember, scrimshaw or something. She could be organizing a fundraiser to benefit cancer research. She could be reaching out for emotional support from her 60,000 Twitter followers. Don't judge her: she's righteously busy.
And, you know, she could be, this entirely fictitious lady on her entirely hypothetical phone ignoring, imaginarily, her theoretical children. Plenty of people manage to be respectably productive on a smartphone, even in the presence of children. Me? When my kids are around I find I can't work, so fragile is my focus. (It's not you, boys, it's me.) (And you.) (But mostly me.) (...Andalsoyou.) And when I'm on my phone, it's Scramble city, sweetheart. Or Facebook, or HootSuite, or texting snotty things with a friend about, seriously, the four cans of soda her son was given during a recent playdate. ("Howler monkey on PCP?" "ADHD lemur on meth.")
The thing is, I'm usually not busy with something important when I'm ignoring my kids. I'm generally dicking around, and why is that not okay? Why do I need to justify doing something just because it's fun with phrases like "self-care" and "recharging my batteries"? Oh, wait. Huh: I don't! It is okay to just screw around, to put my own desires in front of my kids' now and again, and I wish more people would thrust a fist into the air and declare it. I'm fucking off and I don't care.
I mean, we still get to do that, even once we have kids. If you're uncomfortable with the baldness of that assertion, you can dress it up if you want to, acknowledge that during interludes of benign neglect we're simultaneously teaching our children something valuable: that other people's desires are important, too; that you're not always the focus of every eye, and you mustn't expect to be; that when you need us we'll be present, but not every second you merely want; that if Momma — shudder — looks away for a minute, you'll still be fine. You'll thrive.
All true. All true even if the reason for my benign neglect is not that I'm organizing an airlift of humanitarian aid or spearheading an adult literacy program or singlehandedly keeping special needs primates off street drugs and Dr. Pepper. The same thing is true even if I'm merely scowling over my phone, wondering why SHIT and SHAT are words in Scramble but SHITTER doesn't count.
And, whoa, 950 words later I find I must still have something to argue about. Hey, good thing it's something important, like what anonymous strangers think when I'm tuned out with my kids.
Posted by Julie at 09:50 PM in I've learned a lot...but I'm not sure it's worth it. | Comments (69)
Out with the old
Gone bad wrong
Every time something bad happens, some disaster — a shooting, a storm — that doesn't discriminate in its violence, people tell each other, "Hug your babies tight." The message I get is that we're supposed to feel a renewed gratitude to be able to draw our children close when others can't. And I do, but I also feel uncomfortable with the admonition. I do hug my babies tight — and for all I know, so did Nancy Lanza.
Where we fail most grievously, I think, is not in loving and accepting our own children, but in loving and accepting those beyond our immediate circle, and beyond our tiny radius of comfort. Did others see Nancy Lanza struggling, and did they enfold her and bear her up? Did people in the community try to reach Adam, insofar as he could be reached? Did they — did we — give the family all the practical assistance the system could bring to bear?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions about how hard we worked, how seriously we took our commitment to each other. That we didn't help them enough, though, seems at this point obvious. I don't know if anyone could. I just know we need to try, all of us — keep trying and do better.
Charlie saw the news on the muted TV screen at a restaurant Friday night.
I told him what had happened, although the chyrons on CNN spelled it out pretty boldly. He didn't ask why, which struck me as strange. I explained anyway, saying that most of us understand certain hard and fast limits about how to handle what hurts us, but that when something has gone bad wrong in our mind — "gone bad wrong," oh, how else is there to say it? — we no longer play by those rules.
He nodded, grasping the metaphor. "Then we make up our own," he suggested. "And then it goes really bad wrong."
An eight-year-old has an intuitive understanding of the consequences of unchecked mental illness. Is it safe to say the same about those entrusted to safeguard our public health?
In the wake of the shooting a friend on Facebook posted a picture of herself at age 5. It's a way of sidling up, I guess, to absorb the meaning of an incalculable loss to so many families and friends. To look at our own kindergarteners and ourselves when we were the same age, to imagine what it would be like to get that call one morning, or to consider — oh, it sickens me — the fear they surely felt. To blend the edges of where we end into where those in Newtown begin.
I've seen pictures of some of the victims, and although I could describe them with a handful of appropriate adjectives — glossy-haired baby-toothed pink-cheeked smiling, God, smiling — the only way I really see them is loved, loved, loved.
I also saw a photo of a young Adam Lanza, age undetermined. You know the one: chin ducked down, slight smile, blue polo shirt buttoned all the way up.
I feel like what I'm about to say is dangerously profane. I feel equally strongly, though, that we need to say it and hear it, while we're still blending our edges to try and understand each other: I can't stop thinking that he was once five, once went to kindergarten, once sat through having his hair combed. Once smiled for the camera.
The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were beautiful, as were the people who fought for them, and those who protected them and kept some safe from harm. And so once was Adam Lanza, before someone — we — failed him.
I saw a photo this weekend of an art teacher setting up wooden angels representing the children who were killed.
I know better than to believe that there was one for Adam, or even to think there should be.
But I also know we have to do better by each other. We have to. We have to. We have to.
Posted by Julie at 09:52 AM | Comments (71)