Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Birthday Bothers

In addition to Batman, I also struggle with birthday parties. Megan brought hers up this morning, although she won’t be nine for two more months. On the way to school, she announced that she wants to have her party at an ice skating rink and that parents can leave if they want or they can volunteer to drive the girls (since it goes without saying that they will all be girls) back to our house where they will make up and then act out Princess Diaries III, if it’s not out by then. She delivered this plan with the same assurance with which George Bush announced his nomination of Harriet Meyers.

Clearly the birthday stakes are rising. Megan had her first party when she was three. It consisted of five friends and a plain pizza. I didn’t even know then that party favors were expected. I discouraged gifts but suggested that, if they must, people could give art supplies to go with the easel Megan was getting from us. It hasn’t been so simple since. Only two years later, when Megan asked for a piñata and I said we could make one, she responded with a roll of her eyes: “Mom, people don’t make piñatas, they order piñatas.”

Well, we make piñatas. That’s the one birthday extravagance I don’t mind because it becomes a creative family collaboration. So far, our creations have included a pirate, a spider (both for Luke, of course), a giant daisy (the most involved), and the planet Mars, which was harder than you’d think because most balloons are not round. Aside from the piñata, I still try to keep it simple and discourage too many toys, though that has gotten increasingly difficult.

Partly it’s a function of having too many friends to invite. Although we tried the “one guest for every year you’ve been alive” guideline, that always threatened to leave one kid out. Last year was particularly dicey since Megan was in her second year of a split ½ class. That meant she had friends in 1st grade, 2nd grade, and 3rd grade, not counting her out of school friends. A complicated female friendship drama ensued which resulted in some last minute invitations and some bruised feelings. I vowed that in the future we would just invite one whole class, even though our small house is not ideal for a large group of kids in December. (Luke’s spring birthday is easier.)

This year Megan is in the first year of a split ¾ class, so she still has second grade friends in the ½, third grade friends from both the 3 and the ¾, and fourth grade friends who were in second grade with her when she was a first grader in the ½. According to the initial list she drew up this morning, this year’s party could include girls from all four classes, with one glaring omission of a kid whose feelings will be hurt if she’s not invited but who Megan doesn’t particularly feel like inviting. This is going to be complicated before we even get to the issue of skating, which sounds expensive to me. Shuttling kids half an hour, from the skating rink to our house so they can act out The Princess Diaries sounds ridiculous. Megan suggested we rent a van.

In the end, I’m sure Tom and I will rule out anything expensive or complicated, reminding the children that when we were children, neither of us ever even had a birthday party, let alone one every year. Still, our lives are not their frame of reference. They’re comparing themselves to kids they know, some of whom have elaborate birthday parties, and some who don’t. Part of me thinks it’s good that my daughter knows how to dream big and deliver her plans with confidence. I just don’t want to organize or pay for them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Batman's Kiss

One night at bedtime Luke prayed to “stop thinking about that thing I’m thinking about.” I asked if he wanted to share what was on his mind, but he said no. The next night he prayed again, “Don’t let me think about that thing I was thinking about last night.” Eventually I pried out his worry. Evidently he had seen a Batman cartoon where an evil woman kissed Batman with poison on her lips, and Luke couldn’t get that image out his mind. This, he explained, was the reason he wasn’t letting me kiss him goodnight any more. And here I had worried that seeing Star Wars was going to ruin him.

Maybe the Waldorf people are right that we should shield children from all media, but I for one haven’t managed it. I’ve tried to pursue what I consider a moderate course, sticking mostly to short doses of PBS with the occasional wholesome video from the library on Friday night. The fact that Megan is prone to nightmares helps us steer clear of the scarier films Luke would choose if left to his own devices.

Finding films that don’t have anything scary is harder than one might think. It pretty much rules out anything by Disney. For a while we were relying on old musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. But as I started checking out the musicals I loved as a child I was horrified to realize how sexist most of them were. I couldn’t let my children watch My Fair Lady without delivering a running commentary on class and gender.

And then there were the racist films. I turned off Babes in Arms when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland started performing in black face. I don’t know what I was thinking when I got Annie Get Your Gun, a film that’s sexist, racist and full of guns. All I had remembered were the songs. All Luke remembered were the guns. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When Luke was two we watched The Sound of Music, and a few days later he shouted, “Let’s play Nazis!” He then raised his arm and yelled “Heidler Hitler” repeatedly as I chased him around the playground, earnestly insisting that this was Not an OK to say.

Since then I’ve come to accept that young boys are just interested in what Obi-wan calls “The Dark Side,” although I don’t like using light and dark to represent good and evil. I’ve tried to protect Luke from violent images without shaming him for wanting to see them. In fact that’s how Luke ended up seeing Batman to begin with. A few years ago, when all Luke’s best friends were talking about Batman incessantly, I borrowed a Batman cartoon from the library, previewed it, and picked out a part that Luke could see to get an idea of what Batman was like without seeing any of the violence. I thought this was pretty evolved of me and the best way to ease his obsession. However, the next Sunday at Quaker meeting I discovered Luke had build a Batmobile out of kids chairs and was teaching a friend who went to the Waldorf school all about Batman. Oops.

So a few weeks ago, when Luke was at the library with his dad, he saw the Batman video I had borrowed a few years ago and said, “Can I get this? Mom let me see it,” without explaining that I had only let him see selected bits. So that was how Luke ended up with a Batman video that included an evil woman kissing Batman with poison on her lips. Maybe he’ll be scarred for life and grow up to be a misogynist, like Henry Higgens in My Fair Lady, but I hope not. I hope being able to talk about what he’s seen and what he imagines will help him work through his fears.

For Halloween he’s going to be a Ninja, though without the sword, which Target sells separately.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Mom and Mandela

The other day my eighty-two year old mother remarked that she’d never had anything to look forward to in her life, “just wash, iron, cook, and clean.” It made me sad to hear her look back on her life that way, but it also made me think about my own life and what gives it meaning.

I certainly don’t do as much cleaning and ironing as my mother did at my age. (Once I pulled out an iron for a special occasion, and my daughter asked me what it was.) Even though I’m the primary cook for my family, my life is full of so many other activities that I hardly count cooking as a major way I spend my time. When I do clean or do wash, I think of them as necessary chores, not integral parts of my life, even of my work as a mother which I associate more with the children themselves than with the chores that keep them fed and clothed.

As I started reflecting on what gave my own life meaning, I couldn’t help thinking of the book I’m reading, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. It’s striking how much meaning Mandela found during his twenty-seven years in prison, and how much he enjoyed life’s small pleasures: an extra piece of bread on his birthday, a visit from his wife, a small plot of crummy soil in which to start a garden, a glimpse of sky. The government could lock up his body, but not his mind or his spirit.

Mandela reminds me of the importance of a good attitude. Not an attitude of passive acceptance, because Mandela never passively accepted his lot. He was always pressing, even within prison, for better food and more respect. But his work against what was wrong in the world didn’t keep him from appreciating what was right in it. I want to emulate both parts of this attitude, on the one hand showing that women can be more than cooks and cleaners, while on the other hand living those parts of my life to the fullest. I could be more mindful, to use the Buddhist term, more appreciative of the chance to be there for my children, and for my mother.

None of this is meant to judge my mother, who is not the least bit interested in finding the deeper meaning in house work. If hospice workers are correct that despair is one of the stages of dying, I think my mom has reached that stage. I can only hope she’s able to come to peace with her life before it’s over. One of the things I’m learning from watching her go through this process is not to wait to come to peace with my own.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Intelligent Design

“Was God ever a baby?” asked Luke at dinner last night.

Before either Tom or I could answer, Megan said, “I think that when God was a baby, the world was a baby.”

“And when He was a teenager,” added Luke, “there were dinasoars.”

“Don’t say, ‘He,’” corrected Megan. “Who says God is a ‘He?’”

“OK,” said Luke, “He and She.”

“No, it’s ‘He orShe,” said Megan. “Not He and She.”

I don’t know. I kind of like “He and She.” It sounds more inclusive, less limited by human conceptions. I affirmed Luke’s wording, but he said, “Actually I think God is more like a boy.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Because we say, ‘Our Father,’” explained Luke, like he was the first person to ever notice this. “And fathers are boys.”

So the bad news is that I haven’t been able to protect my children from sexist theology, but the good news is that at six and eight-years-old they’re thinking about God and the words they use to describe Him-and-Her. They’re thinking about creation and dinosaurs and evolution and, unlike some adults, they don’t see these ideas as in conflict with the existence of a loving creator. This makes me hopeful about their spiritual futures.

I don’t quite get the whole controversy about Intelligent Design theory. It seems obvious to me that you can believe in evolution and believe in a higher spiritual force in the universe. (Have you ever seen the Redwoods?) It also seems obvious to me that schools can teach science and families can teach faith and that the two don’t need to compete. I know this isn’t obvious to everyone, however. This morning I listened to a conservative talk radio show about evolution, which the guest expert called “dumb.” The questions and comments from callers revealed a very different conception of God from mine, one that is definitely a He. It was clear that listeners felt threatened by any information that contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible.

I strained to try to appreciate where these folks were coming from, since my own understanding of the Bible is far from literal. The one thing I could comprehend was that what their children were learning at home and what they were learning from the wider world were in conflict. I feel that way every time we see a television commercial.

Though we’ve chosen a Quaker school for our children and bring them to one of our congregations every Sunday, it’s clear to me that most of what they learn about faith they learn from the way Tom and I live our daily lives. Sometimes I worry I’ll screw them up. For example, on Wednesday afternoon Megan, Luke and I went to the Salvation Army looking for long skirts for Megan to wear in an upcoming production of Anne of Green Gables. After trying on way too many clothes and waiting in a long line to purchase a few, we drove home in the rain and late afternoon traffic. As I opened the front door, Megan came racing up behind me, her face contorted with fear. “Mom, we left my vest at the Salvation Army!” This was the new blue vest she had just gotten a few weeks ago and which she had been wearing every day since. “OK,” I said. “We’ll just go back and get it,” even though getting back in rainy traffic was the last thing I felt like doing.

On the way, I watched Megan in the rear view mirror. Her face was literally twisted with anxiety and she kept saying, “What if someone took it?” She snapped at Luke when he suggested that we could always get another one at the store if hers was gone. I urged her to relax. “There’s nothing you can do in the car,” I explained. “We’re on our way. You just have to wait.”

“I can’t,” she wailed.

“OK,” I said, “so say a prayer that the vest will still be there.” She got quiet.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered, “Uh oh. What if it’s not there? Will she lose faith in a benevolent Higher Power along with her vest?” After all, I don’t believe our prayers are always answered in the ways we expect or want. What if God wants Megan to learn non-attachment or some other spiritual virtue which will require her to lose things she loves? And here I told her to pray, and now she’ll think prayer doesn’t work?

Fortunately, the vest was still there and we were soon back in traffic, again. Still I’m left wondering how much I can give my children my faith and how much I can protect them from experiences that might challenge it. Sooner or later they’ll have to walk their own journey with the Spirit, whatever they experience Him or Her to be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rushing Roulette

I had to turn on the car defroster this morning, there was so much steam coming out of my ears on the way to school. I don’t know why running late bothers me so much. I guess it’s the feeling of not being in control. I should know by now that I can’t control how long it takes my daughter to pick her wardrobe for the day while my son is swinging on the bunk bed in his underwear. If anything, there is an inverse relationship between how much I yell at them and how long they take. Still, I yell. Not as much as I used to, but more than I’d like to.

What pushed me over the edge this morning was looking for stuff at five to eight. Megan couldn’t find her script on play rehearsal day. Luke couldn’t find his rain coat. My image of a well-run house involves everything in its place—the script, the raincoat, the field trip permission slip—so that no one spends their mornings hunting for stuff. Unfortunately I’m the only family member who puts a high premium on assigning everything a place.

Last night, feeling bored and lethargic, I turned on TV and saw a commercial that featured a mother picking socks off the lamp in her teenaged son’s disheveled bedroom. No way, I thought. I won’t be that mom. My kids will learn to be responsible for themselves. Then I remembered that when Luke throws his dirty socks under the bed I’m the one who digs them out, not him. OK, he’s six, but sixteen is only ten years away. How is he going to learn to be a responsible adolescent if I don’t start training him now?

I’m never quite sure how much to help my kids and how much to challenge them. Picking up Luke’s socks is about twelve times faster than coaxing him to pick them up. Spreading the kid’s cream cheese is so much easier than having them fight over who gets the cream cheese first and then watching the one who wins spread the cream cheese over their bagel oh so slowly to increase the suffering of the waiting sibling. Fighting over the cream cheese is one of those things that can make children late for school. And have I mentioned that I hate being late?

Now that I’m writing in a favorite coffee shop, with jazz trumpets playing overhead, I have a calmer perspective on the morning rush. I realize that getting to school on time is not as important as the process that gets us there. Perhaps running around looking for her script will help Megan to learn to keep track of her stuff, a lesson potentially more long-lasting than whatever they do in class for the first twenty seconds of a Tuesday. Perhaps seeing me exemplify patience would help them learn to wait for the cream cheese without yelling. Perhaps.

I’m sure yelling at my kids for being disorganized and pokey does more harm than a tardy mark on their records (which they didn’t get anyway, having slipped in under the wire once again), but I can’t get stuck in guilt. I have to just keep learning the same lessons over and over, until they sink in a little deeper. Sometimes I wonder why God let’s me screw up in exactly the same ways over and over, and then I remember: God is a parent, too. If my kids were always perfectly prompt, then I would never learn patience, just as if I always pick up Luke’s socks, he’ll never learn to do it himself. It’s not the fastest way to get things done, but parenting is not a speed sport. Neither is spiritual growth.

Friday, October 07, 2005


This morning Luke got up around 6:30 and begged to watch a video before his sister awoke even though we have a no-TV-on-school-mornings rule. I told him to wait until tomorrow (Saturday), which was like telling him to wait till the cows come home—tomorrow seems that remote to him. Yesterday was even worse. He was told he’d have to wait over a week for a playdate with a favorite friend, and he sobbed in despair: over a week.

I understand; waiting is hard. It’s the spiritual practice life keeps giving me, though, so I guess I have more to learn from it.

I’ve almost forgotten that I’m trying to sell my book—almost. The other day, tucked in a tiny pocket of my wallet, I found a cookie fortune that said, “When winter comes heaven will rain success on you.” Winter’s not that far off, I thought. Does this refer to a book sale? I have no idea how long I’ve had this fortune in my wallet, several winters maybe. Still, it’s a scrap of hope. Winter.

But winter is also cold season, and it seems unlikely my mother will live through another winter. She herself is tired of waiting to die, as she tells me and the hospice nurse. My waiting is not that difficult in comparison to hers. Still, I’m waiting to see what will happen with my mom, to see if she will need a lot more care, to see what will be needed of me. It makes planning hard, which is one of the things I don’t like about waiting.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to wait passively—without doing anything, the way Luke must wait for Saturday morning—and when to wait actively. Should I be revising my book proposal? Working on publicity? Getting ahead on my class planning so I’ll have less work in a month should my mother need me more then?

One of the reasons I like taking my children to the community garden is that I want them to learn the rhythms of nature: plant a seed, wait, water, wait, weed, wait. It’s the same reason I believe in baking cookies with kids. It’s not that home-baked cookies should be some symbol of superior mothering, as they became during the Clinton years. I don’t care so much if my children eat home-baked cookies, but I do care that they make home-baked cookies. I want them to learn that the best things in life don’t come ready-made in a box. During the twenty-two minutes the cookies are in the oven, something essential is happening, a process that can’t be rushed by raising the temperature without the risk of ruining the whole endeavor.

I need to keep remembering this myself. I sense there is something cooking within me, and I’m impatient to open the oven door and peek into the future. Unfortunately, there is no oven timer counting down for me how many minutes more I have to wait.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Costumes and Customs

Last February, when Luke started obsessing over what he wanted to be this Halloween, I told my children they weren’t allowed to think about Halloween costumes until October. What I really meant was that I didn’t want to think about it until October, but Megan must have taken this admonition more seriously than most of what I say. Last week, when she was asked at school what she was going to be for Halloween, Megan said resentfully, “I’m not allowed to even think about it until Saturday.”

Well, now it’s October. The greeting card store has its Christmas decorations up, and I’m ready to think about Halloween. Luke wants to be Obi-wan Kenobe so he can carry a lightsaber, which he absolutely swears he won’t swing at any kids during the school Halloween parade. (Yeah, right.)

I like Obi-wan. At least his skill with a lightsaber is balanced with wisdom and compassion. Still, I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to bring weapons to our Quaker school, even on Halloween. Being one of the few Quaker parents, and the clerk of the school’s Religious Life Committee, I don’t exactly want to be the bad examples here. More importantly, I want to teach my son that he can be strong and brave without a weapon or the oversized fists of many male toys.

Is it my imagination, or have the fists been getting bigger? If women complain that Barbie’s proportions are physically impossible, shouldn’t men complain that so many male dolls have fists bigger than their heads? What message does this send my son about the locus of his power? I remember reading a history of Barbie dolls that included a hysterical description of a high level Mattel discussion about how big a “lump” to give Ken when the male doll was first introduced. The decision makers were very aware of the implications of too large or too small a lump. I wonder what thought goes into giving male figures such large hands. Is it pure marketing, the result of some survey that shows that’s what little boys long for, big hands to better handle the big scary world they live in?

It’s funny the lightsaber issue should come up this week, just when I have an article in Brain, Child magazine about swimming against the cultural tide without judging the choices other parents make. I feel like it’s a constant struggle, figuring out what our values are and how to uphold them against a flood of advertising. I have to respect families that make even more unconventional choices than we do because of religious beliefs or values that are out of the current. For example, we have families at our school who don’t celebrate Halloween at all for religious reasons. Thinking about how hard it must be for those kids to sit out the raucous school parade (or stay home that day) puts our little lightsaber problem in a different perspective.

Last year, our school’s Religious Life Committee decided to sponsor an alternative activity for kids whose families didn’t want them in the Halloween parade. There were two adult volunteers and only one kid, but they apparently had a good time talking about what it means to uphold one’s own beliefs when you’re in the minority. I’m reminded that we should organize this again, to provide an affirming space for difference, even if only a few kids come. Of course it won’t get promoted in this month’s school newsletter because I refused to think about Halloween until October.

Already I’m bracing myself for Christmas.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Heaven's Tire Swing

A few nights ago Megan had a hard time going to sleep. When I asked what was wrong, she explained that she couldn’t stop thinking about death and dying. The next morning at breakfast she said, “It would help if there was less talking about dying, especially with you and Daddy.” I guess between me talking about my mom and Tom talking about his new hospice job, we’ve been freaking her out.

I don’t believe in shielding children from death, but it is hard to know what to tell them. They have such practical concerns. “I hope there’s a tire swing and a jungle gym in heaven,” said Luke, about thirty seconds after Megan asked us to stop talking about it. Then at 6:30 this morning he climbed into my bed again and asked, “Will I see Mom and Dad in heaven? Will it be crowded?” I mumbled some sleepy reassurances, and Luke continued his speculation: “Maybe heaven is on Mars. Or maybe hell is on the sun, and heaven is on Pluto.” I mentioned that it was pretty cold on Pluto, and he said, “Well, it’s too cold to live on Pluto, but once you’re dead it doesn’t matter.” Good point.

I don’t know how to explain to a six-year-old that heaven’s not a place we can see with a strong telescope or that there's no fire-filled place that God sends the bad people, although some sincere folks do believe this, and if they’re right Luke might go to heaven, but his mom might not if she keeps losing her temper over the skateboarding in the dining room. At eight, Megan seems more aware of the ambiguity of it all. When I asked her why she was afraid to think about death she replied, “Because you can’t do anything about it.” Another good point.

I can see why people might avoid this topic with their kids. For one thing, parents like to have all the answers, to assure their children that they’ve got this world pretty well figured out. Well, we don’t, and being asked whether there are tire swings in heaven shows me up for the cosmic ignoramus I am. A mother at my Quaker meeting asked a group that was discussing Katrina, “How do we explain this to our children? What’s a Quaker explanation for a devastating hurricane? Where’s God’s will in all this?” We were out of time and decided to postpone figuring out God’s will, but the questions have stayed with me. I tend to fall back on the unsatisfying answer often given in my Roman Catholic upbringing: “It’s a mystery.”

The only thing I know for sure is that death is part of life, and we might as well get used to this idea when we’re young. I know families that won’t bring their children to funerals for fear of traumatizing them, but I think it would be more traumatic to grow up thinking that you are immortal until the day you find a lump in your breast or some other hint that maybe you aren’t. When I talk to friends whose parents who won’t write a will or acknowledge the inevitable, I’m thankful for the frankness with which my mother discusses her own approaching death. She has her own questions about the afterlife, but at least she isn’t afraid to ask them. That's something my children can learn from her.

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