Time traveling, to the present.

I know how to time travel. I do it all the time. Backwards: I see a spot on the sidewalk near my home and remember a morning more than a decade old, when I sat down, pregnant and exhausted, to wait out a three-year-old’s tantrum and cry my own tears. Forward: four more years until my firstborn goes to college.

Then what you want to do is close ranks.

You want to hold your growing children close, and you want to do more than freeze time, you want to push time backwards, squish them back to being almost 4 and 7, and not almost 11 and 14, and yourself not 46. 46! You want to hear only their giggles, not their fights. You want to hold the best moments, the photo of them jumping from bed to bed, the older son catching the younger, airborne and naked and laughing. You want to thread yourselves together, beads on a string — mother-father-son-son, the four of you only, connected and always.

And then you want to do the right thing. You want to say to the mother of the girl who is alone, I will take care of her, of course I will. She can join us, she can break our circle, let the beads fall off the string, rearrange them. And so you do, and you grieve for what you think you’ve lost. And you marvel at the new design, different, but not lesser. And you try to hold the present.

We Survived The Mother’s Day Camping Trip!

The Doritos in the dryer lint are a telltale sign that we’ve been camping. It’s one of those permissions, to eat what I otherwise designate as “poisonous” on regular days. I know this is a crummy lesson, that fun and junk food are partners. I know there are better, stronger, more fit and pure parents who bring trail mix and fruit and make their children do 10-mile hikes. Good for them. But this is us, and our goal this weekend was to bring everyone home alive and uninjured, with family connections renewed.

Mission accomplished.

This wasn’t a given. When we pulled into the campground at Dennison County park near Ojai, the welcome sign warned us to beware of rattlesnakes. As we set up our campsite, Emmett noticed a low mound of dirt with a 2-inch diameter hole at its apex, in and out of which swarmed red ants. This, conveniently next to the picnic table.

We ate, set up the tent, and looked around at our gorgeous surroundings.

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The afternoon stretched out in front of us. Now what? Hide and seek, one suggested, and off we went. Yes, this was why we were here. Playing together, in nature. I chose my hiding spots by the views they afforded.

Then…boredom set in. We played musical chairs, with one of us singing while the other four ran in circles around camp chairs. We read. “It feels like the longest day ever,” Maria said. I didn’t disagree. Christopher said, “Let’s go get ice cream,” and our spirits lifted. We drove the short distance to town and found Ojai Ice Cream across from Libbey Park, where we would spend the next few hours playing on a jungle gym designed for 5-12 year olds, and then playing “Avioncito,” an advanced version of hopscotch Maria taught us.

Back to the campsite. After a dinner of burnt hamburgers and hot dogs came the raison d’camping: s’mores. (See above re: junk food and fun.) Soon after came words I often say but never hear from my children: Can we please all go to bed? It was 9 o’clock.

Maria was nervous about being eaten by animals, so we put her in the center of the tent. As we turned off the last flashlight, Emmett reached toward me and held my hand. In the morning, he looked at me before dawn and said “Happy Mother’s Day,” then we both fell back to sleep.

I had suggested camping for Mother’s Day because I craved time with my children away from our usual habitat. It was everything I’d hoped for.

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Best Mother’s Day Gift … Time Together in the Great Outdoors

Mother’s Day has been a bit of a fiasco in recent past. Police helicopters and lost children and whatnot. (Father’s Day hasn’t fared much better — we had a lifeguard-rescue-from-riptide situation two years back. Where was I while my progeny fought for their lives? Reading a book on the sand facing away from the sea.)

The biggest dramas now are our “disagreements” about electronics in my home. My kids and I do not see eye to eye on what constitutes a reasonable amount of time spent on screens. They would like full access 24/7, without interference. Their dad and I would like to see their eyes sometimes. Rather than risk an argument this Mother’s Day weekend, my request was to go camping.

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This was a great hike in Stowe, Vermont! Maybe we’ll hike this weekend!

It’s not that I love camping. I don’t. It’s that I want to be with my family away from the lure of iPhones, and laptops (mine included) so badly that I will sleep on dirt. Happily. Whatever it takes.

We don’t camp a lot. We’ve got some basic equipment — sleeping bags, a tent, the trunk of our car — but we’re pretty inexperienced at this. Added to the circus this year is Maria, our new daughter I’ve told you about.

I told her we were going camping this weekend.

She said she’d like to go. And then: “Que es camping?” What’s camping?

My Spanish is pretty good, but I don’t know “tent” in Spanish. I fumbled through explanations and pantomime. I think I told her  camping is sleeping outside, under material, in a bag. And she still wants to come! We must be pretty fun.

We will show her what camping is: eating hot dogs and s’mores until you’re sick, playing games, cuddling in the cold, seeing a true night sky when the rock you are lying on keeps you awake all night, rising with the sun, and having only each other and the great outdoors to entertain us when we wake up.

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Kids having fun in nature. Be still my heart.

I look forward to the whole thing, and give thanks that it’s only one night.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Laura

#IWishMyTeacherKnew: Teen Edition

If you’re one of the sage people who avoids Twitter, you may not have seen these striking statements by one 3rd grade class in Colorado. So let me tell you: a teacher, wanting to understand her students’ lives better, assigned them this sentence to complete. “I wish my teacher knew…”

Holy heartbreak, the responses that came back. She, and a gazillion websites, have been sharing them on Twitter. Take these two:

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When I taught kindergarten in Watts, months after the ’92 riots, I didn’t have to assign that sentence to understand the world my kids lived in. They offered up their innocence on the altar of the classroom carpet, sitting crisscross applesauce, hands raised obediently: “They shoot a lot at night here.”

I can’t help but imagine what a high school teacher would learn if they assigned this sentence, “I wish my teacher knew….” Even in our gleaming public high school, kids face all kinds of stresses: poverty, abuse, brokenness. Perhaps: “I wish my teacher knew I have nightmares every night,” or “I wish my teacher knew I woke up at 4 a.m. to ride the public bus to get here,” or “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my parents in over a year.”

But what difference would it make for teachers to know this? Their job is just to teach, right?

Half-right. As educator/humanitarian/visionary Chaim Peri writes in his book The Village Way, contrary to conventional wisdom, adolescence can be a time of great healing. And kids without loving adults at home need to look elsewhere for their mentors: to teachers.

Peri, founder of Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, works with traumatized teens — orphans, immigrants, exiles, and survivors of war in their home countries. They succeed like crazy, becoming productive adults, by re-creating the sense of “village” that Hillary Rodham Clinton brought into the American lexicon a few years back.

“We need to offer [teens] an aura of togetherness,” says Peri in his book, “a sense of inner coherence and emotional solidarity that defies the swirling chaos around us. We must recreate, intentionally, through the messages that we constantly broadcast to our children, the sense of belonging and togetherness that once defined human existence.”

“If I could tell every educator just one thing, it would be that each hour of the teenage years is precious, each experience as potent in its capability to heal or to wound as countless hours of childhood experiences.”

His call to action: each of us has it within ourselves to become a mentor and heal a child.

My husband and I heard Chaim Peri speak when we were in the midst of deciding whether to become stand-in mom and dad to an 18-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. His talk sealed the deal.

Between stepping up and her move-in date we were scared as hell, worried that we were going to ruin our family’s happy life. We have never more wrong.

I’m not saying you have to welcome a stranger into your home to do a world of good. You can go to 826LA. Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. It takes a village, and we are the village.

What other groups do you know that offer the chance to mentor? Share in your comments.

 

 

Lost in Translation

It was the vehemence of the assault that surprised me. The attacker: my son. His weapon: my birthday cake. My birthday was last week. With Maria in our family now, I knew this year would be different than the usual … Continue reading

Introducing Spring, and Maria

The bees are having an orgy with our bottle brush tree. It’s blooming like mad. Needle thin magenta red flowers are exploding all over the place. They land in my hair as I trim its branches to unblock the backyard gate – … Continue reading

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

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It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

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On Quitting, Committing, and Letting Go

Commitment. Responsibility. Perseverance. Quitting.

These are the words released from my pre-dawn dream into my first waking thoughts.

They are the words in the air this week, in the texts I’m receiving and sending other moms, in the hurried how-are-you’s in front of the Y before a half-baked workout.

Why are these words plaguing my subconscious? There are times when your child doesn’t want to keep doing what they’ve done. A team, a class, an instrument. And their simple plea to stop triggers a parental-tizzy in me because I don’t know what value to impart: Be tough and follow through, or be free and follow your desire. The older my children get, the more sand that fills the bottom of our 18-year timepiece, the more significance these value-laden moments carry.

We are in one of those times with our eldest. So I do what I always do: I scroll through my life to see if I can find a lesson somewhere, some way to connect to what he is feeling. I find one: my first week in college, a class I had registered for when I was still in high school, before I knew that no one in their right mind attends a seminar with 8 students (nowhere to hide) from 3 to 6pm on a Friday. I attended the first class thinking mostly of how much I didn’t want to be there, but telling myself that I was stuck with it because I wasn’t a quitter. Quitting was weak. Quitting was shameful. My heart sank further as the professor explained there would be 200 pages of reading each week. I wanted out so badly, but it didn’t fit my perception of who I wanted to be. And then, the miracle happened: he asked if anyone minded if he smoked during class. THIS was a reason I could justify! I walked out of class, not because I couldn’t work hard, I told myself, but because I refused to breathe second-hand smoke for three hours every week. Thank goodness, or I would have been miserable, missing a lot of what freshman year was about – the lead-in to the weekend (actually, that started Thursday). Was it the right decision? Who knows? It was a decision, and I don’t think it ruined me.

Sometimes there are good reasons for quitting. A bad relationship. An abusive boss. A profession that doesn’t fill your soul. I want my kids to be able to shift course if the signs point to better paths, to follow their gut.

And yet, I want them to stick with things when they get hard. I want them to honor commitments they make to themselves and other people, and to know how to buckle down. Life will get hard and they need to cultivate those inner resources to get to the other side.

What to do?

I ride my bike down to the bluffs, where I spent many teenage afternoons trying to make sense of things. I pass a young dad with long hair, walking with his 18-month-old daughter in his arms, the profound wordless companionship of a full-grown soul in a barely-grown body. They stop at a swing that someone hung from a giant eucalyptus. I used to be the one pushing my baby in that very swing.

It’s tempting to say that things were simpler back then. But that time is when my worrying-tendencies burst alive. When decisions about myself – take or drop the class—became decisions about my children. When every question – co-sleep or no, pacifier or no, pre-school or no—became a test of what kind of parent I was and what kind of human I would raise.

I turn my head from the father and daughter and look out toward the ocean. I gasp. It’s enormous. Even bigger today than yesterday, I swear it. And — hallelujah! — the power that transformed my teenage mountain-sized problems into grains of sand works again. It doesn’t give me the answer – commitment versus knowing when to say “I’m done” — but it does give me a transitory peace of knowing that everything will be fine, that what I decide won’t determine if my children become life-long quitters or masters of tenacity.

I decide that I will tell my budding adolescent all that I was thinking about, the yin and yang of yes or no, stay or go. I will give him my best advice, and I will trust him to figure it out.

There it is.

A quick scroll through my life-reel finds this legacy all over the place, the confidence born from being trusted to know the right path for me. I give thanks for that legacy to pass down, and for the familiar shiver of ocean-gazing-plus-writing-leads-to-an-answer alchemy that has sustained me since I was his age.

How to See Miracles

My grandmother Lilli Diamond has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.

How to Have a Good Day (or “Believe Me, Mom! I’m Sick!”)

It’s the kind of morning where you are not sure which way the day is going to go.

Either your child, who stayed home sick-ish from school yesterday (sore throat and headache, nothing verifiable to the outside eye) will be ready to go back to school and you – who work at home and enjoy all the flexibility and distractions and opportunities for kids to stay home from school that working from home provides – will have the house to yourself: to think, to write, to work, to procrastinate with coffee and newspaper in peace, or whatever it is you do.

It could be that kind of day.

Or, it could be a day where your child wakes up, appearing for all the world to be rested and rejuvenated after a day off; where he eats his cereal and readies himself for the school day without complaint or debate, perhaps with an attitude of “this is my lot, may as well face it; there’s nothing I can say that would change her mind to let me stay home so I will bear this cross and go to school” – at which moment his brother (coughing and nose-blowing and feverish) emerges from the guestroom (where he has slept last night because his own brand new, eco-conscious, expensive mattress is “not comfortable”) in T-shirt and underwear disheveled and clearly not going to school; and upon seeing him the child says with eyes wide: “HE’S still here???”

And you know, deep inside, which kind of day it is going to be, even before he changes his countenance, slouches his posture, and says: “I’m not feeling well.”

But you still hope! Because by this point he is dressed – shoes on – and you have agreed to drive him in the car to school. You still believe that his healthy happy core might carry the day – until you hear his commentary on the quick trip to school: “I’ll be home in an hour; see ya’ soon, Mom,” and “no one ever believes me when I say I’m sick” (guilty) and “remember when I had pneumonia and no one thought I was sick” (no); and he continues this commentary out of the car up to the threshold of school, close enough for us to say hello to the PE coach; and you think about getting a call from school in an hour, when you are in the middle of something, you think about the guilt you will feel (toward him, the teacher, the other kids at school for exposing an actually sick child to them), and you say to your child: “You want to come home?”

He looks at you, incredulous – this campaign worked? he was believed? you have a heart? – and he says “Yes,” still not sure if you meant it. And you do.  You come home. He gets back into his footed pajamas, retrieves his book out of his backpack, and climbs into your soft bed to read.

And you think, this day is going to be a good one.