Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and get a “do-over” for my first year of teaching.
I was so excited about engaging kids with literature that I didn’t fully engage with the kids themselves. I thought I did, but it was a superficial exercise. I didn’t really know those kids. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable with students, how to invite their vulnerability in building a safe classroom.
I thought that rigor = zero tolerance for slip-ups. No work by the deadline? Zero in the gradebook, no extensions, no excuses. Tardies? Detention. I didn’t understand that rigor means high standards combined with the guidance to reach them and the compassion to make adjustments as necessary. I hadn’t yet learned that my students were as human as me. I also hadn’t yet learned to give myself the same breaks and empathy that I would learn to give them.
This year, I believe I taught complex texts and skills and held students accountable. My rigor focused on challenges that asked students to be creative and analyze issues and language.
My favorite and most important lessons had less to do with the Common Core and more to do with developing reflective, critical thinkers. When they read about and discussed issues of gender, race, equity, the individual vs. the community, I saw them grow as human beings.
That is what I love about my job: facilitating these opportunities for personal growth. One of the highest compliments I have ever received came today: a freshman told me that I was “the most understanding teacher I have ever had. I mean, you understand us.” That is my mission. To understand my students, to make them see that they matter, that their voices can and should be heard.
As a result, my students open up about their anxieties and concerns. Not just stressed because: Procrastination, Lack of Sleep, Homework Load, Getting Homework Load done in time not already taken by sports, music, theater, volunteering, church, and family–the usual suspects. But also stressed because: Can I keep grades up enough and get enough service hours and excel enough at my activities to get into college? What if I don’t get in to college? How will I afford college? How will I know what my dreams even are, with how my parents are pushing me to go in this direction?
I gave them space to talk and read and ponder these hard questions. And yesterday I gave them this letter:
My dear students,
Many times this year you have talked about your stressors: grades, the time commitments of extra activities, getting into college, paying for college, figuring out a career, balancing school and other schedules with a personal life.
I know these stressors. I was one of you once, stressed to the point of sleeplessness and physical illness. All of you will forge your own path, find your own strategies that work, and have your own defining experiences that will teach you better than any words can. Still, if it helps, here are some things I have learned over time to help manage stress and anxiety so they don’t manage me.
Manage your expectations. Another way to say this is, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” Much negativity comes out of expectations not matching up with what actually happens. Examine your expectations and assumptions regularly, and look honestly at reality.
Trust. Mick Jagger sang it well: “You can’t always get what you want, but[…]you get what you need.” Things may not happen the way you planned, but I truly believe that the Universe gives us what we need to grow into our best selves.
Be mindful about your mindset. Adversity is inevitable; misery is optional. Breathe into the present moment. Let go. Reframe your thinking about what’s stressing you out. Practice gratitude. You are the narrator of your own story.
You are never truly stuck. Part of living and growing is learning from your experiences, even the undesired ones. If you make a mistake, most of the time you can fix it or make a different choice next time. If you are flexible with your options, you won’t feel trapped by things beyond your control. Because there are always things beyond your control.
The truest truth I have learned is that we can control one thing in life: our choices. One thing. Just one. We wish we could control other people’s choices, our deadlines, the weather, but really we just have our choices. Lousy, huh? Unfair. But true.
Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” The older we get, the more at peace we can be with uncertainty. Here’s another great quote about that, this one by Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet:
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Vulnerability, very much associated with stress, is hard to accept. But what makes us uncomfortable, anxious, and exposed to hurt also allows us to take risks, engage, grow, and have a fully-lived life. Learning not to fight vulnerability is one of the greatest skills you can have.
Know, beyond all this, that strength and courage already reside in you. I believe in you.
So this past week was rather awful.
The week before was normal. It looked like this:
Sure, there were hiccups. Unpleasant behaviors we were dealing with. But seemingly overnight last weekend, all three kids’ issues intensified simultaneously.
We tried being patient and non-judgmental and nurtur-y.
After days on end of feeling like I was under siege, I cracked.
The other day as I sat crying on the couch because nothing I did was working to improve their situation, Alan had come home early from work and read a random book from our bookshelf to the kids. Bearcub and Mama. Bearcub gets separated from his Mama during a snowstorm and feels anxious until he remembers what his Mama always told him:
“All storms pass.”
As my neighbor told me later that night when I called her to vent and make sure I wasn’t crazy, she reminisced about when her own kids were four and hellish: “It will pass. But not fast enough.”
And then I remembered the suckiest of sucky truths about life.
Also the Main Truth about Life.
The ONLY THING we get to control is our choices.
That’s it. Just that ONE thing.
Today I read this blog post by Renegade Mama which hit really close to home. That when my kids act out, I don’t have control over them. I can guide. I can direct. I can blame them and try to force them to change.
Or I can recognize that they’re four. And still so, so little. And maybe they just need more snuggle time, more attention from me, more stability and assurance that even though they make bad choices that I still love them.
Because for a little while there, I didn’t feel that unconditional love toward them.
I was pissed at them. Pissed for making me so agitated, pissed for giving me insomnia, pissed for being so emotionally exhausting. Pissed because I have needs too and even if I didn’t, maybe there’s no way I could ever give them everything they need.
That’s a hard place to be, and I find myself there from time to time. Trying to meet my needs, including time away from my kids. To exercise. To think. To read and write and connect with friends and fill those parts of my soul that get depleted. And trying to meet my kids’ needs when sometimes I’m not even sure what their needs are other than that they express those needs through biting, and shoving, and yelling.
I can meet my needs or my kids’ needs but not both all the time. Sometimes one set has to be sacrificed. And that’s what I signed up for, I understand, but man, such a choice is hardhardhard.
So while my students took their final exam today, I breathed and wrote myself reminders about these hard-won lessons that would be so much easier if I just had to learn them ONCE and be done: Respond, don’t react. Focus on the good. Low expectations, high acceptance.
And then I came home on this gorgeous sunny June afternoon and we played a silly game of “Drive the Fire Truck.” They stamped while I made dinner. We rode bikes outside. It was lovely.
The storm seems to have passed, for the moment.
We have made it through four years–they of being alive, and we of parenting. All of us survivors and learners and becomers.
I would normally wax poetic about how wonderful and amazing my kids are. Which, of course, they are.
Except sometimes. Like these past two nights, both of which have required multiple glasses of wine.
I mostly try to write about the little celebrations, the moments of gratitude, the peace in the chaos. Sometimes, though, I feel compelled to present parenting as it really is: its frustrations all mixed up together with the joy.
So here are the highs and lows of the last few days:
High: Waking up to the pile of presents from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and parents. So much glee.
Low: Tears due to the incorrect color of goggles and fights over toys. Pushing. Hitting. More tears. Fighting over space on my lap.
High: Every Sunday, Fr. Mark asks anyone whose birthday or anniversary is that week to come to the altar for a blessing. The kids watch this every Sunday. This morning, Audrey and Theresa brought their birthday cards to show Fr. Mark how old they were. Upon hearing his request for birthdays, Audrey led the charge–and I mean full-on sprint–toward the altar. Fr. Mark pretended to look terrified at potentially being tackled by three four-year-olds. It was one of the most enthusiastic and adorable birthdays I’ve ever seen. They got their blessing, though Audrey hid her head in my shoulder for the singing–I think it was one of her first moments of feeling self-conscious.
Low: One of our children had a hard time dealing with Big Feelings today. Anytime something did not go this kid’s way, this kid hit or pushed a sibling, sometimes just because the sibling happened to be in the vicinity. One of these moments happened downstairs, and I heard the “I want Moooooommmmmmyyyyyyyy” wail drift upstairs. A naked child appeared in the doorway, crying, and crawled up on my lap. As I was, um, using the toilet. Another child was already on a small potty in the next room because the bathroom was occupied. As I comforted the naked child on my lap, the third child, also naked, came crying into the room, also wanting comfort. Comfort is hard to give when one is in such a compromised position. Makes me want to lock the bathroom door. Except when I do, this happens:
Low: We had a few things to get at the grocery store, a trip that we told them would end with a stop by the bakery for them to pick out a birthday treat. They wanted to eat their treats in the store; we told them the treats were for dessert (i.e. after dinner). Meltdown. I had to leave the store with two kids while Alan paid for the groceries with the non-melting-down child.
High: Audrey hit Theresa (that’s not a high point). Then she came up to the crying Theresa, hugged her, and said, unprompted, “I’m sorry. You’re the nicest cat ever.” Theresa: “I’m not a cat.” Audrey: “You’re the nicest person.”
Low: Audrey was crying in the car because she needed a hug. I could not give her a hug because I was wearing a seatbelt. Theresa: “She needs to be quiet. I’m trying to sleep.” Jamie: “I’m trying to listen to the music.”
High: They’ve gone to sleep nearly immediately after lights-out for three nights in a row. Growth spurt? Exhaustion? Vestiges of the nasty cold they had? Who knows. At least I can finish my wine in peace.
All I’m saying is, fellow parents, sometimes it’s hard to focus on the highs and ignore the lows.
But, as Mr. Slinger says in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.”
This song is lovely…and for our house, it would need to be rewritten.
Our house is a very, very, very LOUD house
With three kids in the yard, life used to be so quiet
Now everything is crazy ’cause of you.
And, you know, I love the crazy. I live the crazy. Sometimes, I feel the need to show people what having three almost-four-year-olds is like, because so often they say, “I don’t know how you do it.”
It’s like this:
Every afternoon when I come home from work:
I open the door. Three small humans turn from whatever they’re doing to TELL ME ALL ABOUT SOMETHING AT TOP VOLUME: MOMMY! MOMMY! [INCOMPREHENSIBLE SHOUTING THAT INDIVIDUALLY WOULD SOUND LIKE A STORY BUT COLLECTIVELY SOUND LIKE GIBBERISH]
Today during pre-outing potty check:
Kid Z’s turn for potty check: this kid finally gets into the bathroom and spends some time examining bath toys.
Kid Y bee-lines into the bathroom, pulls own pants down, gets on the toilet, pees, flushes, pulls pants back up, and gets on the stool to wash hands.
In the same amount of time, Kid Z has progressed to pulling pants to ankles and is in the middle of a lengthy story to me about tigers.
This is why it takes me forever to get out of the house.
The other night, well after lights-out:
Kid X calls downstairs: Mommy, I need a nail clipper.
Alan calls back, because we really don’t want to go into their room for the 4th time: What do you need a nail clipper for?
Kid X: I need a nail clipper because…
Kid Y: KID X NEEDS A NAIL CLIPPER!
Alan: I know that; I was asking Kid X why.
Kid X: I…
Kid Y: KID X NEEDS A NAIL CLIPPER! [continues yelling over every attempt at conversation until we give up and go in to find out]
My dining room floor is, in fact, made from wood! Not, as previously suspected, from a combination of stale cereal bits, dried shredded cheddar, hardened rice, and bean husks.
And summer–oh, man, summer is the bane of a clean floor’s existence. Not only do my kids track in dirt, sand, pebbles, etc., but there’s the grit that gets accidentally dumped out of the shoes they wore to the sandbox, or the “nice rocks” (or feather, or shell) that someone stuffed into a sweatshirt or pants pocket to save, that I find in the washing machine trap.
A recent afternoon, trying to get dinner ready after sending three kids into the backyard to play:
Kid X comes inside to help me with dinner. I get him/her situated on a stool to help me sort broccoli into big and little pieces so I can cut the big pieces.
Kid Y comes in from the backyard because clothing is wet. “I know. You were playing with the water table. That’s the point,” I say. Kid Y needs help wriggling out of wet rash guard.
I attempt to continue prepping broccoli.
Kid Z stops at the threshold from the backyard to pour water out of a rain boot. This kid also needs help getting out of wet clothes and back into dry clothes. Kid X is waiting patiently (I hope) by a very sharp knife. Kid Z hauls another stool from the bathroom to “help” me make dinner. I return to the broccoli.
Kid X gets down from the stool to use the potty. Kid Z starts talking to me about something. Kid X returns from the bathroom.
“Did you wash your hands?”
“Go wash your hands.” Kid Z keeps trying to talk to me. I try to focus on not slicing my own or anyone else’s fingers. Kid X drifts toward the food.
“Wash. Your. Hands.” Same story.
Kid X huffs back toward the bathroom and then calls that there is no stool. I haul the stool back in.
Kid Y calls into the kitchen: “Mama, will you read this book to me?”
Kid Z is thoroughly annoyed with me, gets off the stool, and stalks into the living room. I’m left with one (finally) clean-handed kid and the same pile of broccoli. I attempt to continue.
Kid Z yells at top volume from the other room: “MOMMY. I’M NOT TALKING TO YOU.”
Good, I think.
Kid Z is not done. “MOMMY. DON’T. TALK. TO ME.”
I’m obviously not talking to you.
“YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO ME!”
I leave the broccoli, telling Kid X not to touch the knife, and head into the living room.
“Are you frustrated because I wasn’t able to pay attention to you?”
Kid Z grunts at me. Or growls. Hard to tell which.
I end up telling Kid Z something more kid-friendly than this:
Sometimes I get frustrated with you because you get distracted, but then sometimes you ask me to do something, and I say ‘right after I do this other thing,’ and that turns into four other things because the laundry needs to get switched over to make sure the mattress pad is dry by bedtime because someone leaked through their pull-up again, or someone needs help in the bathroom, or I realize I haven’t peed in several hours, or a myriad of other fires that need putting out. And then I forget what I promised. Which is so frustrating for you, and me, and it’s just the chaos of our life.
If there were an Olympic event for “picking up” (i.e. putting away every shoe, article of clothing, toy, blanket, etc. that is spread over every floor of my house), I would win. Maybe. I bet there’s some stiff parent competition in the “picking up” event.
We try to have a nightly “pick up game,” for which my husband brilliantly creates tasks (“If you can name this book, you can put it on the shelf!”) But there are only so many fights per day that we can fight, and sometimes the energy required to herd kids towards clean-up is more than we can muster.
So I find myself whenever I move from Point A to Point B in our home, picking up as I go. There’s a pair of kid socks under the kitchen table that need to go in the hamper, and on my way to the hamper I find toys that belong downstairs, and on my way downstairs I realize that there’s no laundry basket for the dry laundry down there, so I climb up to the second floor and find toy cars strewn all over my bedroom floor. By the time I finish picking that up, someone is calling me to help with something, or two kids are in a screaming match, so I never remember to have an empty laundry basket in the laundry room and this is why I often find a kid’s sock or pair of underwear in my jacket pocket.
Perks of having three kids:
Oh, there are perks.
I can trust them to watch out for each other.
They comfort each other, even if I got upset at them. (Theresa hugged a crying Audrey this morning–I don’t even remember why she was crying.)
They shared the only snack I had on the unexpectedly loooong ride home from a park this afternoon before dinner.
This morning, they played so happily together that I thought, “Having a good day taking care of my kids is better than a day to myself.” When it’s not a good day with the kids for various reasons, obviously I’d rather have a book and a mug of tea at the coffee shop (or, heck, even a stack of grading and a mug of tea). However, today was an exceptionally agreeable day, despite the several pee accidents and awful traffic.
At least my life is never boring.
P.S. I need better aliases than Kids X, Y, and Z. I’m open to suggestions that protect the kid in question’s identity.
I thought that once we were past the first year, we would be over the hardest stuff.
Nobody ever tells you the truth: what used to be hard gets easier, but other hard stuff crops up.
When our kiddos started walking, I was initiated into a whole new realm of parenting fear: the playground. My babies wanted to toddle, climb, explore…but often the playgrounds were too crowded with big kids running and swinging and sliding, and the playground equipment wasn’t always good for our sized kids. It felt like every sweet moment of “Look at my baby climb those big steps!” was immediately succeeded by “…to the PRECIPICE OF DEATH!”
Now I see my friends with 18-month-olds, wondering where they can go with their kids that lets them explore the world while being safe enough to prevent the perma-panic in a parental heart. If you live around north Seattle, here’s what we’ve found: certainly not an exhaustive list, but what we have tried and liked.
Bookstore storytimes (free!):
Seattle Public Library has (free!):
- great storytimes (many available; check out the Library website and search Events by audience: children).
- Kaleidoscope Play and Learn: Mondays Northgate, 10:30-12 pm, and Tuesdays 10-11:30 am, Lake City Branch.
Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park hosts (free!) Kaleidoscope Play and Learn on Thursdays, 10 – 11:30 am.
Wonderland Development Center also hosts (free!) Play and Learn sessions:
- Mondays 10-11 am, Meridian Park Elementary, Shoreline
- Tuesdays 10-11 am, North City Learning Center, Shoreline
- Wednesdays 10:30-11:30 am, Broadview Library, Seattle
Shoreline Children’s Center:
- Family Center Room 1, 9 am – noon (on school schedule)
- Play and Learn (free!):
Shoreline Children’s Center, Room 1, Wednesdays 9:30-11 am
Highland Terrace, Fridays, 9:15-10:45 am
Lake Forest Park, Tuesdays, 9:15-10:45 am
Play Areas near Shops or Cafes:
- Mosaic (Wallingford): free enclosed play space for parents to eat/drink/chat and kids to play. Since it’s run by a church, food and drink are by donation.
- Third Place Books (Ravenna or Lake Forest Park): right next to the food court.
- PlayHappy Cafe (Lynnwood): enclosed play spaces for babies and for bigger kids. $9 first kid, $6 for siblings. Decent food at decent prices.
- Playdate SEA (South Lake Union): a smaller room for smaller kids, but the bigger play space scared my 2.5-year-olds. And it’s LOUD. Weekdays $5/under 3; $10 4 and up. Weekends and holidays $8/under 3; $15 4 and up.
Indoor Play Spaces:
- OmTots at OmCulture (Wallingford): a yoga/dance space converted to kid playspace with some gymnastics equipment 3 days/week. Getting a pass is far cheaper–they used to offer a great multiples discount, but alas, no more.
- Zoomazium at Woodland Park Zoo: a great enclosed space for the 0-2 crowd; lots of activities, climbing, and exploring for the 3+ crowd. A daily Creature Feature at 10:30 am. Worth it to get a zoo membership just for this.
- Seattle Aquarium Toddler Time: a two-hour drop-in session a few times a month in fall and winter. They turn a multi-purpose room upstairs into toddler heaven: painting (with completely wash-out paints–trust me), coloring, reading nook with stuffed animals, a play boat, a mini-touch-tank, water table…
- Seattle Children’s Museum: an enclosed space for 0-2-year-olds; if you’re bringing multiple children, figure out how to stay together when so many exciting rooms beckon.
- Spartan Recreation Center Indoor Playground (Shoreline): $2.50 per kid for non-Shoreline residents gets you a huge basketball gym filled with kid toys: ride-ons, balls, mats with slides, play kitchen, etc. Open during school year, 5 days/week, 9:30-11:30 am.
- KiDiMu (Bainbridge Island): for a bigger outing, complete with ferry ride, check out this small but fun children’s museum.
Seattle Community Center indoor play spaces: $3/kid. Check open times and days by going to the Toddler Time link on the right-hand side of any participating community center. Here are the ones we’ve been to:
Toddler Rooms: Enclosed rooms full of mats, toys, some inside play structures.
- Ballard (pretty small, even for my three small ones)
- Greenlake (the biggest, and open most often)
Toddler Gyms: like Spartan Recreation Center, a huge basketball court filled with toys.
- Bitter Lake
Mountlake Terrace Pool Leisure Swim: $3/person. They have a fantastic warm, shallow area for little kids, with pool toys, life jackets, fountains…a wonderful way to give little ones water experience without paying for Mommy and Me swim classes.
Music classes: options abound. We took our kids from 9 months to 2.5 years to Chickadee Music Together with Mary Anne, who is fabulous and was born to be a children’s music teacher.
Beach Naturalist Days (various days at various Seattle-area beaches): volunteers from the Seattle Aquarium offer education about our beaches to visitors–the volunteers are so awesome, and now I know how to find crabs, sea stars, and other fun facts.
Seattle Playgrounds / Parks: We went to many parks that were not appropriate for my kids’ age at the time–though how can you know? The bolded ones below have smaller play structures where I felt safer taking my early walkers / toddlers. The others are ones we’ve been to–clearly we need to check out more of Seattle!
Ballard Playground (outside Ballard CC)
Bitter Lake CC playground
Bryant Neighborhood Park
Cal Anderson Park
Gas Works Park
Golden Gardens Park
Green Lake Park
Licton Springs Park
Maple Leaf Park
Matthews Beach Park
Ravenna-Eckstein (comm center)
View Ridge Playfield
West Queen Anne Playfield
As your kids get older, here are some of our recent favorites:
- Museum of Flight
- Pacific Science Center
- Pump It Up (Lynnwood)
- Imagine Children’s Museum (Everett)
- Northwest Railway Museum’s vintage train ride (Snoqualmie)
- riding the LightRail from downtown to any destination
And in case you need more ideas…
My mom was the first to show me how to be a good mom.
- kind, patient, compassionate
- a teacher who does not condescend to her students
- a worrier
- a cryer (yep, that’s where I get it from)
I watched her anxiety as my brother or I faced hard things: new skills, challenging situations, sad experiences that she could not fix for us–or maybe she could, but knew we had to figure it out on our own.
At our sporting events, she cheered the loudest.
When I went away to college, I think she felt as bad as I did when I got my first illness and wondered who would bring me soup and tissues.
During all four years at college, my parents quasi-adopted many of my friends from far away who would stay with us for Thanksgivings or Easters.
I remember being bewildered by her annoyance at my behaviors: I would yell down the stairs instead of walking down and talking with her; I would get so engrossed in a book or whatever I was doing that I would appear to hear her (“Yep. Uh-huh.”) but retain nothing of her instructions or questions.
[Be satisfied, Mom: my children do the same things, and drive me the same amount of crazy. I totally deserve it.]
If we had superhero capes, hers might have a stack of books topped with a (half-full) cup of tea, encompassed by a giant heart.
Mine might have a stack of books topped with three sippy cups erupting like fountains.
My mom, my Nana and Grandma, my awesome aunts Mary, Mary, Mary, Rea, and Cindy: these women taught me about motherhood through their examples of sacrifice and love to their own children and all children.
On Mother’s Day and every day, I honor them.
* * *
When our babies first attached to a lovey–and we determined that this stuffed animal/blanket was their one and only favorite–Alan and I got an extra of each.
We have been very lucky so far not to have lost Bear, Munny, or Bunny, but occasionally they get misplaced. (Like, inside a bag that gets stuffed inside a strainer in a cabinet. Or tucked neatly into the nightstand by the guest bed. Or buried under a mountain of other stuffed animals and toys in the tent in the corner of our basement.)
So Jamie has his Auxiliary Bear, and Audrey and Theresa have an Auxiliary Bunny. But somewhere along the line, Theresa started calling the back-up “Rescue Bunny,” which has stuck.
Rescue Bunny is not identical to Original Bunny. It is also not just a back-up. It serves as a support system in time of crisis, and its very existence is reassuring.
I wrote about this last year, too: how I have been blessed to have a strong mother as well as additional mother figures. My Rescue Mamas. Penny, Mary Jane, Sue, Jacki, Pat, Rie, Elke, BJ, Cleo, and others on my journey. They do not replace my own mom, but their presence in my life has helped shaped me into the woman and mama I am.
This is what I hope for my kids too: because, Jamie, Audrey, and Theresa, your mama knows a lot, but I don’t know everything. Someday you might want to talk to a mama-type person about something that is not in my areas of expertise. Or you need a different perspective. And you will have your grandmas and your Aunts Karen, AJ, Jen, and Maya–aunts by blood and marriage and friendship–to guide you through your experiences. And Abbie, Jillian, Nicole, Andrea, Lisa, and other women whom we have not yet met who will help shape you into your best selves.
On Mother’s Day and every day, I honor all of these mamas. My tribe.
Some simple gifts recently:
- lunch in the sunshine with another triplet mama (hi, N!)–so refreshing to the soul to have conversation full of “Me too!” and “I know, right?” and “I’m so glad I’m not the only one.”
- red tulips that glow against the darkish grey of twilight rain
- Mindful Moment Fridays: a new routine I started for my students to teach them mindfulness practices
- watching baby snails and slugs emerge on rain-slicked sidewalks
- smelling the lilacs, which always reminds me of my Nana and Grampy’s lilac trees in their backyard. And Amy Lowell’s “Lilacs,” which ends:
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,Lilac in me because I am New England,Because my roots are in it,Because my leaves are of it,Because my flowers are for it,Because it is my countryAnd I speak to it of itselfAnd sing of it with my own voiceSince certainly it is mine.
- rhododendrons bursting into color everywhere: whites, pinks, brilliant reds
- taking a walk instead of yelling during one very frustrating afternoon.
- a date with my elderly neighbor to hear the Seattle Symphony play Grieg’s piano concerto, a beautiful piece which brought tears to my eyes.
- watching my students perform in Footloose.
- a mini-hike with Nana, Grampy, Nicole, and all the kids on a gorgeous spring afternoon in April.
- my dad cleaned out 4 metric tons of Cheerios and other detritus from the floor of our van while he was here. And fixed our pot filler. And fixed our grill. And mowed our lawn. My mom did approximately 36 loads of laundry.
- Canadians. Seriously. They are so nice.
- a weekend trip to Vancouver to cheer on Alan as he ran the Vancouver Marathon: a beautiful day; a beautiful city; a strong, dedicated, inspiring husband.
- having seven people in our lives take care of our kids in various shifts over two and a half days. So grateful for our village.
- a surprise thank-you note from one of my freshmen: that I helped her find her voice, and that she is inspired to be a voice for the voiceless.
- reconnecting with my best friend from high school (hi, H!).
- our new family tradition: getting donuts after kids’ haircuts. Such a nice treat, and a very nice incentive for those who dislike having anyone touch their head. Extra-extra bonus: the vegan donut place near us means I get a donut too.
- “special kid-Mommy days”: Audrey voted to spend her special Audrey-Mommy day at the aquarium with a bonus ride on the Great Wheel; Theresa spent her special Theresa-Mommy day at the aquarium with a good amount of time in the gift store, hugging stuffed animals; Jamie wanted to follow his trip to the aquarium with a ride on the Great Wheel, but it was closed for renovations, so we ended up riding the elevator to the top of the Space Needle instead. I am so grateful for these days.
My yoga teacher had us fold ourselves into pigeon pose at the end of class. While we were forehead-to-mat, she said something like this:
“Breathe into your hip and create space. The space is an opening: an opening to your most authentic self, and an opening to connect with the human experience.”
Meanwhile, I was thinking, “My hip is really s t r e t c h e d. Yow. How much longer with the yog-ese till I can get up?”
As usual, though, she’s right.
I experienced the opening in each hip as discomfort: tendons and muscles stretching beyond their normal range of motion. I tried to breathe space into the tightness, and relax. To stop fighting.
I tried the same thing last week. It was a hard week. Heartbreaking. Exhausting.
And I was reminded of a prayer: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”
Openness requires stretching beyond normal limits. Maybe not so much breaking as softening. Trusting. Allowing the joy and the suffering and the light and the darkness together, as fully as possible.
This is also what it means to hold space, for ourselves and for others. The sacred space, the space between.
In college, I took a class on chaos theory, which explores the realm between order and disorder. The space between one equilibrium and a new equilibrium.
Where we want to be is on one side or another. Where it’s comfortable and safe and known.
Where we live and grow is in between. In the chaos.
So this is my prayer: Open my heart. Soften me so that I may connect more fully with others in our peace and in our pain.
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Life has been humming along here for us five, which means I haven’t had a lot of time to post but have noticed lots of small moments of celebration that some of you (ahem, grandparent-ish figures) want to know about.
It has not been all hummingbirds and tulips, though our tulips have bloomed and are the bright spot in our unkempt yard. Potty usage was smooth sailing for a while, and there have been some regressions. Like, I do multiple loads of laundry per day. The washing machine is like my own personal spot for daily devotions. (There must be a patron saint of laundry, right? All those Catholic mamas with their large families must have spent time praying to someone as they scrubbed stains and washed and dried and folded.)
But my friend with twins a little older than our kids, whom I had not seen in like months even though she lives three blocks away (hi, K!), told me today that her kiddos have had similar potty issues, which makes me feel better that my kids are not abnormal.
There have also been some behavioral upheavals, including some very overtired and loopy or defiant children from our recent trip to Dallas. Mostly, the issue seemed to be saving face: “I don’t want to get in trouble but I don’t want to do what you say, so I’ll find a way to barely comply while not actually doing what you asked me to.”
Then there was the “it’s so funny to do exactly the opposite of what you say.” Hugely funny. That pushes my angry button every single time. But I have been working on my responses, so that’s another little celebration.
Some little celebrations to observe on the kids’ end:
- We spent Easter with Alan’s extended family in Texas. They are super-awesome, especially his aunt and uncle who are our kids’ Ooma and Oompa: another set of adoring grandparents.
- The kids got to meet my Aunt Rea and Alan’s Uncle John for the first time, which was also awesome.
- Theresa has some serious attention to detail. Alan’s uncle called her a “cautious observer.” She pointed out nails embedded in the sidewalk today on our ride to the park, and a mural on the upper wall of a food court that I would never have noticed otherwise, and bugs and flowers and so many tiny things that remind me to stop and really look at the world around me. At the aquarium on our special Theresa-mommy day, she asked about jellyfish: “Why don’t they have eyes?”, which the volunteer answered for her. She found almost every acorn cap in the entrance to the Children’s Garden at the Dallas Arboretum. She delights in pill bugs. Callie tolerates–maybe even invites–her hugs. This may someday turn into my house becoming a menagerie. Also, she has decided to ride her balance bike after nine months of not wanting to, and is rocking it.
- Jamie’s biggest thrill of our trip was the ceiling fans at Ooma and Oompa’s house. There were seven. He liked turning them on and off, which became a problem when we realized that he would not stop, even after multiple instructions. He also learned “Hot Cross Buns” on Ooma’s piano. He also got several experiences with escalators and elevators, which probably led to him describing the following scenario yesterday: “There’s an escalator in my building and it goes up to my desk. I will take the escalator and you can take the elevator. And there are ceiling fans. It’s in Mont-Free Downtown.” He likes introducing his statements with “Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey.” One current interest is letters and sounds: he wants to know “How is your named spelled?” and tries sounding out words in books like we’ve showed him.
- Audrey has been practicing her own calm-down time: she gets really quiet when she’s upset, and either says, “I feel like crying, but that’s okay” [like when we left her backpack on the shuttle to the airport and a kind man on the shuttle had to run after us to give it back–including Munny inside], or sits down with arms around her knees, saying she needs space [like in the doorway of the bathroom at the Cameron Park Zoo]. She loves inventing life stories for her animals, often involving making them a birthday cake, feeding the animal, and helping them poop on the potty. She worried that our van was sad when we left, and gave it a hug when we returned. She continues to be an awesome helper, bringing her siblings ice when they’re hurt, helping Jamie put on his pants when he got frustrated, and saying things like, “I’m an activist. Activists are helpers.” She also delighted in being the spokesperson for our group, telling everyone about our trip: airline staff, other passengers, Ooma and Oompa’s friends…
- The kids like making up their own names for themselves and their animals. Theresa’s recent alter-egos are Kanika and Jackson Piaxon. Audrey makes up words that don’t sound like any other language on earth, then tells me she’s speaking Spanish or French.
- Audiobooks are a godsend. We listened to Small Pig by Arnold Lobel, Brave Irene, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and The Amazing Bone (read by the amazing John Lithgow) by William Steig, and Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit on the long ride back from Waco, and the kids were a) awake, and b) silent.
- They actually most of the time play well together–today they were even helping each other put together a puzzle. When things are going well, they look like this:
- Most of all, I’m grateful that they hit the grandparent jackpot. They love those adults who love them right back. (Audrey kept asking people in Texas, “Will you miss us?”–even people like Frieda whom she had just met but evidently bonded with.) I wish every kid had such a circle of grown-ups who lavish them with love because of who they are.
We’re all seeking.
Some of us for enjoyment: the next awesome show on Netflix.
Some of us for a partner.
For a cure.
For a family.
For a baby.
For relief, or release.
It’s better than Waiting, I suppose. Waiting is passive. Dr. Seuss calls it “a most useless place: The Waiting Place.”
Seeking feels more active, more promising. More in control. (But with no guarantee of “boom bands.”)
For me, Seeking can end up being synonymous with restlessness. An itchy, irritable, why am I not THERE yet? It is hard, hard, hard to be in the middle. Just be-ing. Especially when the be-ing is in the dark. For a long time.
* * *
To be clear, this is not about me. Or rather, it is about my wanting to help the people around me. To heal things. To fix. To make better. Because my life mantra (or at least one of them) is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each another?”
Not one of us can heal another’s internal suffering. The best we can do is to witness and to love, and I feel sometimes that it is inadequate, imperfect, blundery. And it reminds me of precisely how powerless we all are: both Seekers and Witnesses.
* * *
We became friends about six months ago with a couple pregnant with triplets–a really great couple, whom we knew would make great parents.
Their triplets arrived really early, at 27 weeks. They were relatively stable (as stable as preemies can be) in the NICU, and their ring of family and friends brought food, commented on their updates, sent waves of love and support to those three babies.
A few days ago, at 7 weeks old, one of the boys died.
To lose a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. To lose a child while you have to care for two other medically fragile newborns is unimaginable. I cannot even begin to figure out how best to love this couple as they grieve one baby and care for their living babies.
* * *
My Grandma turns 90 this May. Each of the past several times I’ve talked with her, she tells me, “Every day I pray that the Good Lord take me. I’m ready. This isn’t living.”
Stuck in a nursing home due to a combination of ailments, including congestive heart failure and recently, chronic nausea and pain from a herniated disc in her lower back, she is done. D-O-N-E. She watched her sisters languish in nursing homes, visited them weekly if not daily. She doesn’t want that. Nor do I.
I call. I listen to her breathless, weak voice. I answer her questions about how my job is, how my kids and husband are. I tell her I love her.
* * *
Maya told me once, when I was having a hard time, that she would “hold space” for me. What on earth does that mean?
It means that I hold a space open for you, she said. I don’t wish or pray for one thing or another for you. I just hold space that you are able to find the direction you need.
It means empathy. Exposing our hearts to pain and grief: the other person’s, and our own.
It means not Seeking, or Waiting. It looks like someone witnessing and loving another on their journey.
Can we be strong enough, vulnerable enough, to hold space for the seekers? For the suffering?
P.S. This is a beautiful post on holding space and how to do it. Cheers to hospice nurse Bridget for sharing it.