We Are Going to Another Continent.

Evening flight to grandma, mercifully uncrowded. Honorary Aunt Solveig knits. Mbot draws a picture of the wing of the plane out the window. All is calm.

We are in Florida. It is not, techically, another continent, as Mbot told his teacher yesterday when I pulled him out of preschool early to make the plane. But it might as well be one, because we are entering a foreign world: the world of the old.

My grandmother turned ninety-six on Saturday. I’d seen her last when Mbot was five weeks old. At ninety-one, she’d flown to a family reunion in Idaho. She’d been very much herself–slightly shorter, slightly whiter, slightly slower. But the same lightning sense of humor, keen intelligence, and outspokenness was in full display. “You look good,” she would say. And then, “Are you sure you’re not too skinny?”

But time changes everything, and things fall apart.

I have been attempting to visit her since Gbot was born, just three years ago. But several factors held me back, one of which was that I, a self-made expert at visualizing, and then enacting extensive travel plans that include one adult (myself) and an unmatched set of under-two, or under-three year-old seat-mates, simply could not visualize the bots and I making the journey. But in the past ten days, several sereptitious occurrences colluded to help us on our way, among them, my friend from second grade, Solveig, agreed to meet us in Denver and accompany us. She is a good sport, with an endless supply of humor and a cunning resourcefulness that can include a corkscrew when necessary.

In the days prior to departure, I steeled myself for the worst: I knew my grandmother might not recognize me and if she did, it wouldn’t last. I knew she might just doze off. I feared she would be smaller even than I remembered, bedridden, wearing hospital garb, confined to a room. I wondered if the staff kept her nails pretty and her hair–which always, in my memory, looked nice (although at a price–my grandfather used to kid her about her “lightning rods,” which is how he referred to her curlers).

Our plane touched down at close to midnight, and so we got a late start the next morning, arriving at John Knox Health Center close to noon. Solveig and the bots played on the grounds while I went up to her room. She wasn’t there–I was surprised to hear that she was at lunch. I ventured down the hall to a windowed room in which maybe thirty elderly people, in various states of aging, sat eating a meal that didn’t look too bad.

I recognized my grandmother immediately. She looked remarkably similar to the photos my parents had taken the year before. Her hair was well-taken care of. She was wearing fresh, clean clothes, including a very pretty red knit jacket that matched the vest I’d left in the car. A nurse was helping her eat dessert, a piece of lemon cake. I bent down and put my hand on her shoulder. “Grandma,” I said. “It’s your granddaughter, Betsy. I’ve come to visit, and I’ve brought my little boys, your great grandsons.”

She looked up, took me in, and said, “You’re so skinny!” I laughed with relief. No matter what I’d heard about her good days and her bad days, the incoherence over the phone, the tendency to get agitated–this was still Grandma.

Much of what followed didn’t make sense, but much did. I wheeled her inexpertly down the hall, into the elevator, and out the door onto the grounds. The weather was lovely–low seventies, the sun not too bright, a cool, fresh breeze. A few minutes later we came upon Solveig with the bots.

Something about the children seemed to awaken her synapses and bring her alert. She worried aloud when one of the bots would disappear behind a rose bush, or the fountain. “Thank you for helping me keep track of them,” I laughed, and she laughed too. Maybe not at that, but does it really matter? “Bring them to dinner,” she said. “Children are enjoyed,” she said. “They’re so much fun.” Mbot, who has always loved the smell of a rose, asked to smell one in the rose garden, and I picked one, held it to his nose, to Grandma’s. A look of pleasure crossed her face.

Nearly an hour into our visit, sitting by the fountain, she looked me, our faces twelve inches apart. “You know,” she said, “you look a lot like my granddaughter, Betsy.”

“I am your granddaughter, Betsy,” I said.

And we stared at one another, her bemused expression revealing that memory was attempting feats that mostly it had just grown too old for. At that moment, Mbot ran from the fountain. He held up his wrist, devoid of the red, heart-shaped sillyband he’d chosen from the airport store silly-band pack the day before. “Mommmmmm,” wailed Mbot. “Gbot threw my heart into the water.”

Oh, I know how you feel, I wanted to say to Mbot. I think I did say it, with tears in my lashes. “It will be okay,” I said to him, next. “I have another.” I felt how big a mother’s heart has to be. I felt like a magician able to pull a heart out of my sleeve whenever there is a call for one, and that as a mother, I have an endless supply. As a mother, and now, as a granddaughter. I was taken care of, all those years–am still taken care of, to some extent, by my own mother, although she lives three states away. And now it’s my turn. I am the grown up. Because, I think, of the role reversal, in my grandmother’s presence, I saw myself more as a grown up than I do in the presence of my children.

Just twenty minutes before, she had known who Mbot was when I’d introduced him. They’d held a brief conversation. She’d watched Gbot run and play. “He will be a fine man,” she said, smiling. At another point, she smiled again, admiring his hair.

Later, she looked at me and asked, “How’s your writing?”

I told her, briefly.

“Did you write any today?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I replied, not thinking of the notes scrawled across the palm of my left hand, or the ones I’d texted to myself on my phone.

Mbot asked to accompany us when I returned her to the social area on her floor. We left her sitting by a table. She hadn’t wanted to face the TV. (Like grandmother like granddaughter). We hugged and kissed her goodbye. She smiled and asked if “they were meeting us,” and I just said smiled and said yes. I turned back before we turned the corner to the elevator and she was still sitting, hands in her lap, just sitting, looking within, and I knew we had been lucky to have come on a good day. And I couldn’t help but feel that our coming had help make it a good day.

We will go back tomorrow.

Gbot and Spruce Bear sleep their way to another continent.

Giving Thanks for a Hamster Dance

Do not let the reindeer pajamas fool you. He is guilty.

ln our neck of the desert, Thanksgiving came and went with much gaiety about the feast in the Montessori classroom and much griping about the feast on Grandma’s picnic table. Apparently, Thanksgiving would be better if the Pilgrims had eaten pizza.

I expect a fair number of the Pilgrims had colds over Thanksgiving, and we did, too. Gbot had the croup. We spent Monday morning at the doctor’s office while he struggled to push off the mask attached to the nebulizer. I found myself chanting a wild, ridiculous, rhyming song about dancing hamsters that I made up as I went, to make him giggle and forget the mask. It worked. By the time we were heading home, he was breathing deeply, and the hamster dance was jammed in my head like some parasite from the Amazon jungle that disappears into your ear and consumes you from the inside out.

I wrote it down that evening, at which point it had turned into a forty-line tongue-twister. I tweaked it. I loved it. I actually sent it to an agent.

She wrote back the next morning before eight a.m. She loved it, she said. But she thought it was too sophisticated for the picture book crowd.

A disappointment. Especially as the bots were on their way to memorizing key verses and danced madly to it every time I chanted it, and Mbot had decided he wanted to bring it to school and turn it into a play.

I tweaked it a little more, and sent it off to seven other agents. Into the ether. But it has already served a purpose. Not only did the ludicrous thing help Gbot breathe easier, it helped me, too. It reminded me of how much I love silly children’s verse.

So the next day I checked out a book called Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry: How to Write a Poem, by Jack Prelutsky, the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate. I hadn’t even known there was such a person! It is a wonderful book, written for a pre-adolescent audience. It is full of sage advice. Prelutsky repeats perhaps ten times that kids should carry a notebook and two pens around with them everywhere, to jot down ideas as they have them. He does, he says, because if he doesn’t, he forgets them, and there goes a whole poem. This made me feel a lot better about my inability to recall a bot-statement even fifteen minutes after it’s uttered.

For anyone who loves language, and who wants to teach children to love language, check out this book! Literally.

amazon.com

Oh, and the picture of Gbot pillaging sweets first thing in the morning, with the help from the stool that should be in the bathroom? I just needed an image to start me writing. It’s always a delight to find actual photographic evidence of someone caught with his hand in the bag. This week, I was reminded of my love of poetry for children–really good poetry for children–both reading it and, with any hope, writing it. Rediscovering this, I feel like a kid stealing candy. It’s such a deep, simple joy. And I can do it in my pajamas.

I hope you had a Thanksgiving that was peaceful–even if it wasn’t pizzaful.

On Waiting. Or WHERE’S MY MARSHMALLOW?

methodlogical.wordpress.com

After Gbot and I stopped at the third home-improvement store in two days, in search of proper track lighting, proper bulbs, an adequate fan, and a dimmer switch in the right size plate in the right color (the less off- of two off-whites), I was waiting in line at the Starbucks.  I deserved, I thought, something I had not made myself. I was pleased to see there were four cars ahead of me, because of the new gift I’m giving myself, the time to read. I reached across to the passenger seat where my copy of Pamela Druckerman‘s Bringing Up Bebe was optimistically waiting.

Last night, I got to the part in the book about waiting. That is, making your child wait. Not too long. Just long enough to begin to teach him how to deal with small frustrations. The theory is, if he learns to self-distract, if he learns patience, he will be happier and more successful in dealing with the old frustrting world which certainly, on a daily basis, makes you wait. Having a child wait also has the happy effect of keeping the constant requests that ricochet off a mother’s skull fourteen hours a day from actually penetrating bone and causing the gray matter to dribble out onto your blouse. “Attend,” the French mothers simply say. “Wait.” And, astoundingly, the demand is met, according to Druckerman, with actual waiting.

I thought I’d been effectively saying Wait. But in the past few days, we’ve been practicing more. I have said it twenty times today, in situations ranging from “I want a drink of water” to “I need a pencil.”

Needless to say, in the past sixty “waits,” I’ve become acutely aware of how immediately my children want things, all the time.

As I was waiting in the drive-through, reading as fast as I could, I remembered the famous marshmallow test of the sixties–and then, several paragraphs down, Druckerman brought it up. She not only discusses it, but she goes to the source–one reason I am enjoying this book so much. She meets the man behind the marshmallows, Walter Mischel who invented the famous marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test isn’t a way to choose the best filling for your s’more–it was a longterm study on how the ability to delay gratification in childhood relates directly to an adult’s longterm success in school and a career.

Briefly, the marshmallow test involved watching on hidden cameras a child left alone in a room at a table with a single marshmallow on it. The child has been told that if he doesn’t eat the marshmallow right away, he’ll get another soon (in fifteen minutes). Then the child is left alone in the room. Just he and his impulses and the marshmallow. Seventy percent of the time, the results were the same as when Walter the Farting Dog (not, apparently, named after Walter Mischel), was left in the cruise ship’s hold with the cheese. (Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise.) (Walter eats the whole cheese.) The children who didn’t eat the marshmallow–who waited and got two–proved to be more successful in school, have significantly higher SAT scores, and feel more fulfilled in their careers later in life.

The marshmallow test revealed not only that the children with self control would learn to fare better in the world, but how they did it. They weren’t just better at being patient–merely sitting quietly with their hands folded–but at–lo and behold–distracting themselves while they waited.

After waiting in the drive-through for nearly ten minutes, I got my coffee, and I got a reading fix. (I was distracting myself from waiting for my coffee by reading.) Gbot and I returned home with our bounty of electrical gadgets, and the electrician announced we would have to wait ’til Monday for him to finish the job. No lights in the bedrooms for four days. Waiting. It’s for everyone.

But I have too many things to do to let lightless bedrooms faze me. And–not married until thirty-nine–I’ve got a lot of years of practice under my belt.

For the bots, this waiting thing hasn’t been easy. As I type, Mbot is slouched in a chair looking at The Tortoise and the Jackrabbit, by Susan Lowell. He doesn’t want to be looking at the book, or sitting in the chair. Husbot has told him that it’s time to sit quietly in the chair with a book. The moment Husbot leaves the room, Mbot slides off the chair, his feet touching the ground, and makes eye contact with me over the edge of the book. He points to the sofa. His mouth quivers. Tears begin to fall. “Mama,” he wails.

Husbot returns. “You’re old enough to practice sitting in the chair,” he says. Tears. More “Mamas.” It is uncomfortable being me right now because my heart has migrated across the room and is in that chair while the rest of my body perches, feeling heartless, on my own chair. “I’m just waiting and wating,” wails Mbot. “I really just wanted to hug Mama…”

I know this is best. I know he must learn to distract himself. I know it is harder for Mbot to learn this than for many children–Gbot, for example. I don’t trust myself that I know the best way to teach him this. But surely practice cannot hurt.

“I want to get out of this place.” Pause. “Mama.” Pause. Big gulp of air with the hint of a yawn. “Mommy, mommy.”

He never calls me Mommy.

“Malcolm, that’s enough,” says Husbot, striding in. “I want you to sit still and read your book.”

“I don’t want to read my book….” Wail, wail, wail, sniffle, bawl, gulp, cry. How many sounds there are for self-pity. The wind chimes clong and gong from outside the screen door. The wailing stops. The soothing tones have changed the subject, at least for several seconds.

“No, I wanted to hug Mama. I’ve been sitting here for these many minutes…I want to go…”

I remember again the clock my sister recently bought for her twins. Not just any clock: the Time Timer:

This model is suggested for children with autism or ADHD. A list of various models can be found on Friendship Circle Blog.

I order it. Husbot leaves the room. Mbot sits quietly for several minutes. “Can I come out now?” he asks.

Husbot lets him, telling him he’s been a good bear, telling him he’s old enough to learn to read quietly for thirty minutes while Mom works.

And I’m thinking this is working only because Husbot and I are working together and Gbot’s got the croup and is in the bedroom lying down. I have found it impossible to enforce a quiet reading time while running interference between the bots.

But it is rewarding to see that Mbot can do it–can sit in a chair with a book for thirty minutes, even if it’s thirty whining, wailing minutes. It’s a start. We will work on it. I will wait.

Newsflash: Reading is Relaxing!

Gbot sets out breakfast and an audience, about a year ago. Would I look this stress-free if I read to myself over breakfast?

Overheard at the coffeeshop on Saturday:

“So, have you read Harry Potter?”

“Yeah.”

“What book are you on?”

The conversation wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that the two conversationalists’ chins barely skimmed the table top as they sipped their hot chocolate. They were four years old–Mbot and his friend Mbug. She’s a bright kid whose mom had told me she wouldn’t sit still to listen to picture books. I loaned her the first Harry Potter. They were on chapter five; she was riveted.

The same day, the news over at the Huffington Post was that reading a good book lowers stress levels. HuffPo editors and bloggers chimed in on their reasons how and why in Turn the Page on Stress. 

The timing was interesting, as a few weeks ago, I picked up a book I’d had on a side table for a month. I was too tired to read, and too tired to sleep. I lay down on the sofa, listening for a bot to call me back for one more hug, and opened the book. I knew that one reason I felt so weary was that I hadn’t gotten–or given myself–a chance to read more than half a New Yorker article in over a month–probably two.

The book wasn’t fiction: recommended by a friend, it was Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen’s Superparenting for ADD. The title might reveal one of the reasons I’m so tired, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A while back, Mbot was diagnosed with “very low level” Attention Deficit Disorder–a borderline case, a case that’s almost not a case, but I feel it’s something I needed to learn to manage more effectively than I was managing it. I dislike the label because so much ignorance surrounds it and it carries so many negative connotations. In learning more about ADD, I’m learning to change my own behavior, which helps him with his; the result is a happier bot and a happier household. Hallowell’s positive approach to the issue is delightful and his storytelling is instructive and amusing.

An hour after I started reading, I was thirty-eight pages in and feeling a much-missed feeling of lightness and optimism. I recognized I felt better partly because of the contents of the book, but partly due to the simple act of leaving my own drama to witness those of others. I was reminded, through narrative, that obstacles can be overcome for a happy conclusion, and that recognizing the truth and dealing with it is a source of power–and having control over a situation is a way to lower stress levels.

I am of course reminded often of the de-stressing powers of reading, but it is a constant source of amazement to me how thoroughly we can ignore things we know, or forget them. I am reminded of reading’s calming effect by Mbot himself. Every night at bedtime, and usually during the day, I read aloud, in addition to a few picture books, a chapter (usually more) of Harry Potter (we’re on book two), a chapter of Little House on the Prairie (we’re on book two), and a chapter of The Hardy Boys. (We jump around according to whatever’s on the library shelf). Mbot, who has shown little patience with learning the letters of the alphabet, and who is often pushing the boundaries of his environment, is completely absorbed by a long narrative. He often asks the meaning of unfamiliar words, but I am not sure how much he understands of the story arc. Yet he does understand there are characters to be concerned about, and that there is a story arc. He would sit listening until my voice gave out or I collapsed face down, drooling on the Heir of Slytherin.

On Saturday, in addition to coming across HuffPo’s article, I happened to read Flannery O’Connor‘s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in which she writes,

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

When I came across O’Connor’s observation, I realized I had put off reading (to myself) for that month or those months not simply because I was too tired or didn’t have time–but because I lacked the courage to take a long look at things. I was resisting entering a drama–anyone else’s drama–because I didn’t have enough emotional energy for their’s, too: I am a slow reader, and invest a lot in whatever I’m reading. But in those thirty-eight pages of Hallowell’s book, I was introduced to nearly a dozen people’s dramas, and instead of feeling oppressed by them, I felt uplifted. Since that night, I’ve been making time to read (to myself!) every day, even if it is just for a few minutes in the car before heading inside. In fact, I’m back to my old habit of reading several books at once–like I said, if only a few pages at a time.

And so stress-relief is even closer than the new gym with two hours of child-care per day. It’s as close at hand as my bookshelves. Now all I need to do is remember that.

They are Both So Beautiful Girls

(from the very interesting blog, http://www.buckbokai.com)

I’m blogging infrequently not because I’m participating in NaNoWrMo (is that how you spell it?)–I’m not. I’m blogging less because right now, there are so many things competing for my two most marketable commodities, 1.time, and 2.the ability to have things not die on my watch.

Although my plants would argue about commodity #2, if they weren’t shriveled, blackened versions of their once plumply-chlorophylled selves that looked out eagerly from the shelves at Lowe’s at all the possibilities open to them. If they had known better, they would have screamed to be spared when I put them in my shopping cart beside Mbot and Gbot. For all I know, they were screaming, but their plantly pleas were overwhelmed by whatever bottish conversation/bickering was already occurring in the cart.

I plead guilty to the murder of two fine plants that had not wronged me in any way.

I am starting to feel like my writing is wizzling, too.

Yesterday when I might have been writing, I was installing pull-out bins in the kitchen cabinets so I can finally organize the kitchen and get all my paperwork off the counter. One can only ignore such an ungodly mess for so long (a year). My friend Solveig, visiting from Colorado, helped enormously by not only ripping out the original crappy shelving, but by playing a game with the bots called “Who can stay out of the kitchen the best?”

Tuesday, when I might have been writing, I was doing fifty-three administrative tasks related to my volunteer work as caregiver, teacher, peacekeeper, entertainer, home manager, laundress, sous chef, chef, dessert chef, server, busser (although the bots are junior bussers now), interior designer, social secretary, event organizer, correspondent, and chauffeur.

Then I was attempting to keep my children from ransacking the child-free home of the very nice child-free friends of Solveig’s, with whom we were watching the election returns. Or rather, Solveig and the very nice child-free friends were watching the election returns. I was watching to make sure the bots didn’t launch themselves through the very nice plate glass window as a result of jumping on the supersized beanbag chair. What? Huh? Who won? The candidate campaigning on the platform of subsidized childcare? What do you mean, there isn’t one???

Monday, as Solveig watched the bots at home, I was sitting in the Barnes and Noble, telling myself I should be writing. Instead I slouched in a stupor in the children’s book section, reading picture books. The kid’s book section–when I am there by myself–is one of my go-to recharging stations.

It is a challenge finding the necessary combination of time and energy to complete any task larger than emptying a loaded diaper or laundry basket. (And even then, the towels get left in the dryer overnight by mistake…when will I get around to hanging that clothes line in the garage? Oh right–right after I put up the shelving in the garage….)

It is not that I dislike any of the tasks I am called upon to complete. (Well, anyone interested in doing just dishes, laundry, mopping, sliding bin installation, and plant watering, please call, I am hiring.) It is simply that there is such a vast accumulation of tasks, that I find it difficult to complete them, and my writing projects, too.

Do I want to play with the bots? Yes. Do I want to cook a lovely dinner? Yes. Do I want to sew Junepbear a fluffy sweatsuit out of fabric Mbot picked out himself, because Junepbear sports more and more unfluffy spots these days? Yes. Do I want to paint a mural in the bots’ room? Sit in a quiet room by myself with books and a computer? Get on a bike and sweat for an hour? Start teaching at the college level again? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Do I want to clean the litter box? Actually, yes. But what do I need to do? For my family and for myself? The need to prioritize wisely–and reap contentedness from my choices–has never been so urgent.

I am working on solutions. One is as simple as leaving the YMCA and joining, for $11 more per month, a gym that has educational computer games in the childcare area, which is open all day, as opposed to the one at the Y which, as fun as Gbot finds it, is closed during the critical hours of one to three. If I took advantage of this service, I could get up to two hours per day to either write or ride, work or workout, while the bots are in good hands. It’s a start.

I am trying not to feel guilty about this decision, and to understand the roots of the guilt. Guilt rarely has roots in logic or rationality. I just started reading Pamela Druckerman’s bestselling mommy memoir, Bringing up Bebe, about the differences in American and French parenting–and so am trying to open myself up to “there are many ways to raise a child right,” and, “as long as I am worried I am not doing a good job, I am probably doing a good job,” and, “I need to be healthy and happy to help raise children who are healthy and happy.”

Finding myself with so many things I want and need to do, I feel a little like Mbot must have yesterday at snack time. On the drive home from school, I asked him who he’d had snack with–his friend Mbug? Obot? Hbug?

“Oh, by myself,” was the answer.

“Why, Potato Sweet?” I asked.

He shrugged, raising his hands in the air, both palms up. “Well, Mbug and Hbug are both so beautiful girls, I just can’t pick.”

Hiding my smile–he just turned four! It starts so early–I explained that he could sit with Mbug one day, and Hbug the next, and be friends with both.

There is not a lot of time for introspection these days, and so I will leave it at this: I may not be able to do everything on my list. But I need to be friends with my achievements, and friends with my expectations, too.

I think this means I need to stop buying house plants.

Chipless Dale and Mini-Harry: A Photo Essay

It was a Halloween miracle, or several: Gbot’s brown turtleneck arrived via UPS at 3:45 p.m. Having forgotten to load up their pumpkin buckets, I bought the last $1.99 cauldron at the corner drugstore at 4:10 p.m. There was a $1.99 bat bag hanging above it. In spite of a still-coldy, sore-nosed Gbot (and after the application to the nostrils of Vaseline, which ingited a bout of wailing that only a piece of pizza could stop), we were all outfitted in time to take pictures. And Gbot wore his costume. All evening. The Great Pumpkin surely was watching over us.

I hope The Great Pumpkin was watching over you, too!