Friday, April 29, 2011

Tiny and the Great Lunch Debate

This morning at my son’s school, the cafeteria ladies asked me if I had been packing my child’s lunch. I told them that I have been, but Tiny has learned how to work the system. This week, Tiny racked up a five dollar debt with the cafeteria. A couple of weeks prior, it was four dollars. Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But, each lunch is two dollars plus the value of one solid lie that he spins when he doesn’t want to eat my food. Dealing with the lie is frustrating enough. The wasting of food is a second problem. Worst of all, however, is trying to figure out what he will eat. He isn’t consistent.

Once when my husband unpacked a box of mandarin orange cups from the grocery, my son exclaimed his love of “owanges”. He ate them a few times and then went on strike.

“I don’t wike dis.”

When we purchased a large box of granola bars, he ate one, decided he did not like them, and then two weeks later began to raid the box on his own. This week?

“I don’t wike dis.”

At school, he eats grapes. He will not eat grapes from home. At school, he will deny the very leftovers or sandwiches he will eat at home. I think my son just likes to walk through the cafeteria line and make choices. I think he just likes to make me crazy.

At home, life is simple and choices are limited: you can eat or starve. Take last night, for example. Tiny pushed his plate back and announced that he could not eat his dinner. I put the plate on the counter and told him there was an awful lot of untouched food, so therefore, should hunger return, I would reheat his plate.

Minutes later:

“I’m hungwy. I would wike a ganilla bar.”

“You cannot have a granola bar. If you are hungry, you can finish your burrito and rice from dinner.”

“I’m not hungwy,” he decided. Figuring two could play this game, he went on active hunger strike and later headed to bed having touched nary a grain of rice on his plate. I still cannot figure out how and when his love of granola bars returned. This morning, in hopes of packing a good lunch that would sustain the little fella’s tummy and please his palate, I asked him what kind of lunch he would like. He decided on a cheese sandwich and some fruit. Packing his lunch, I knew exactly what would happen: eventually he will return to me with a mashed up half-eaten cheese sandwich and make a certain comment about it: “I don’t wike dis.”

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pink Houses

I know my son is unwell when he cries over small matters, such as not being able to find his true desire: a pink house with a pool in the real estate magazine I gave him. My son, beloved little creature, house-shops at the precious age of four. He is obsessed with real estate magazines, which he eagerly procures from those curbside magazine and newspaper stands in town.

Today, home with a case of strep throat, my son occupied himself quietly while I wrapped up a load of administrative duties at my desk. To reward him, I gave him the latest copy of some grand estate brochure—one that showcases million dollar homes with loads of lush acreage, customized marble flooring, or fancy outdoor kitchens. I no longer look in these magazines myself because they are a form of torture.

Tiny Man slapped the magazine with the back of his hand, complained about the glossy paper being resistant to marker (which he had tried to use to circle his choices), and whined about how he could not believe there was not one pink house in this edition. I tried not to laugh, but couldn’t help myself. Scooping him up, I checked his forehead, carried him upstairs, and tucked him in bed for a nap.

Sweet dreams, little man. And lullabies of pink houses

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Gift of Chimayo

Dramatic puffs and dreamy shapes left sweeping white tails across the upturned bowl of turquoise sky. While my husband and our guide chattered over horseback, my pony and I plodded silently along behind them with deliberate steps through open range and steep arroyo. Against the backdrop of scrub-brush and sand, I let my thoughts drift with the striations of pink, cream, and muted orange that flanked distant cliffs and buttes. We had journeyed from Santa Fe by car in a modern, informal pilgrimage to Chimayo that afternoon, and now found ourselves looking for rabbit tracks and listening to the gentle wuff and snort of working horses. My pony did not know where I had been. If I could have told her, I would have said that I had taken a journey of the heart.

Earlier that week, my husband and I had spent the first day of our journey driving first to one airport, finding no flight out, and then driving four hours to another one—the second leg of that journey I spent tearfully as my husband explained that I often am less forgiving of my daughter than I am of my son. Among the emotional baggage I yearned to shed, thus my desire to see Chimayo, I added to it prayers to relinquish my daughter from any of the leftover hard-heartedness I have carried the last few years.

I went to the chapel at Chimayo only with the expectation that true miracles occur with absolute belief--as a friend later told me, a pilgrimage of within--travel not being necessary. But I knew the very act of my being in this place, this land holding within its history ancient spirits and love of earth, would aid in the transformation I so desired. Later that afternoon, a palm full of Chimayo dirt in my hand, prayers said and tears shed one final time, I leaned against my husband in wordless acknowledgment of his love for me, the importance of this journey, and the knowledge that this moment was a mark of change, a promise to myself and my daughter. The wide-open palm of New Mexico’s earth raised me up. I would give myself to its jewel-toned sky as a newly emerged butterfly.

Later, my husband and I wound our way from Santa Fe to Taos on a road I had not explored in nearly twenty years. I watched the land stretch as dusty scrub-brushed range and followed its embrace to intimate vistas of crowded Indian reservations. Battered cars, pushed in lines against dilapidated adobe houses; lean, brown dogs chained in yards; skeletons of cottonwood trees before first bloom—there is an absence of life, much less prosperity in these parts. Veritable shanties of stucco, adobe, and wood hardly emerge from the sandscape against the majestic and holy mountains. I said to my husband that the most sacred spaces are the most humble ones.

And so I have returned from New Mexico with joy in my heart and the feeling of leaving a cocoon. Change is in the air, as is the birth of spring. With a better job prospect in the works, new friends in the making, and a clean outlook on loving my little girl, I am honoring the gift of Chimayo, sacred sands, and majestic mountains.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chimayo, My Heart, and the Miracle of Words

One evening, after listening to a series of my complaints, my husband was musing about how people who have little can seem to be so happy. He said to consider the Dalai Lama.

“Easy,” I said. “He’s never been married.” My husband thought this was really funny. I was being serious. Marriage, particularly on a step-family level, can be really challenging. “And he doesn’t clean his own toilet,” I continued. “You know, relationships go to a whole new level when you have to clean someone else’s toilet.” Point made.

Periodically, I enjoy toying with my husband’s wisdom. Last year, when I was frustrated with ongoing legal battles, my husband often quoted the Art of War by Sun Tzu. I disposed of these quotes by saying Sun Tzu was not being sued for the custody of his children, that this was not even a possibility in his lifetime (he lived 2500 years ago), and that being a military general for the king, he had servants at his disposal to handle a vast number of his needs--including of course, the emptying and cleaning of his chamber pot.

Of course, I know what my husband is trying to say, and I thank him for his efforts to provoke thought and inspire, but what I really need during those tense or sad moments when I seek comfort is… comfort. So this week, my husband said the most beautiful thing. We had gone to dinner, just the two of us, and were discussing a chapel in New Mexico known for its legendary association of  miraculous cures—crutches line the walls of those who have come, believed, prayed, and walked away unhindered by injury or ailment. I asked, since I have been so beaten down lately, what does one leave behind if the injury is not visible—if there is no crutch or wheelchair to abandon? And then I asked him, what would he pray to recover from were we to go?

“Sometimes,” he said softly, “we pray not for ourselves, but for others.”

This, my sweet, is why I so adore you. Without ever stepping foot inside the sacred walls of Chimayo, you have healed me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Mother on Horseback

When I recently grounded my daughter for failing to adequately prepare for tests, I banned her from riding lessons. Her instructor said the perfect revenge for a kid that takes this activity for granted is to have her mother partake of it in the child's place.

So this week, I swung my legs gently over the back of a twenty-four year old quarter horse named Daddy. He was sensitive, highly responsive, powerful, beautiful--and by the end of the lesson, I could now announce I was seeing a younger man who happens to have four legs (I'd say five, but he is a gelding and that fifth leg isn't packing a punch).

I worked with that lovely beast, and the world did not exist in those moments. I did not feel the wind nor the cold, nor hear the birds or passing cars. Instead, I listened to what cannot otherwise be heard--I listened with calves and thighs to the relax of his breath in the swell of horse belly, the feel of rythmic gait countering my own balance. I listened to the flickering of his ears, the posture of his head, the angle of my thumbs against reins. I listened to my body for the invisible line that ran from ears to heels, and for the widening circle the horse drew as my interior leg pressed firmly and slowly against his ribs. I heard the horse react silently to my trainer's voice then rotate his decision-making to my own. And I heard him as he gave my body lift on the crescendo stroke of a trot.

In the barn, post-lesson, I gently removed tack from the back of my new friend and whispered to him that I was so thankful he had been kind to a woman who was pushing her prime. My hands eased him from one side of the stall to the other as I flecked pollen and sweat from his hide. He waited, turned his head, and spoke of the morning to me. Grateful for attention and a sweet carrot, he loitered before lowering his head into a waiting fly mask.

I left the dark barn, breaking into the bright coolness of spring. Horses calling softly in distant pastures, I knew--I want to do this forever.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Adolescent Mindset and Indolence

You remember how I so piteously wrung my hands over what I perceived as a learning disorder that was affecting my daughter. We visited a therapist, had her tested, met with a team of counselors and teachers at school, re-examined and restructured aspects of our lives to accommodate her social, familial, and academic needs--and we finally found the name of her learning disorder: laziness and lack of accountability. This mess is all my daughter's choice and making.

Combating laziness has been a bit of a challenge. I have employed a string of strategies to motivate or punish. Long story short? It ain't working, at least not consistently. And she isn't even belligerent about it. She can be happy or sometimes a bit diffident. This stumps me.

"Oh," says my Chicken Little in her characteristic sing-song, "in school today I got a 56, 59, 96, and a 100!"
"Whoa, whoa!!" I say, "Back up there!"

This is not an uncommon conversation at my house. I spent the first part of the year micromanaging homework, tutoring, questioning, writing practice tests, drilling, and double checking. I spent the next part of the year giving my daughter more decision-making and authority over her own work. I have spent the last part of this school year beating my head against the wall.

I pooled my Facebook friends for advice. I consulted my parents, neighbors, ex-husband, current husband, school teachers, and parents of classmates. I have grounded her with isolation in her room, taken away her computer, her phone, her Breyer horses, her playtime with neighbor children, her riding lessons, television watching, Wii, et cetera. I have tried to reward with the concept of earning back her Breyer horses and those other things, earning dollars for grades (a last resort that makes me feel cheap and desperate), verbal praise, computer game time, treats at a local cafe, and more. Today's announcement about the poor grades at least came with tears. Of all the things that have negatively affected our little bird, making her spend time in her room all afternoon seems to be the worst. (Of course, I like this because she isn't downstairs fighting with her brother.)

The weak grades aren't predictable; sometimes she fails a math test and other times a social studies test. The next week, math is up, but language arts suffers. I give up. Seriously. I told my ex that we just need to get her through the year. You can only lecture a child about the value of persistence so much.

Newsflash from the parents of grown children who laugh when I tell them what she is and isn't doing in school: This is all her. There is nothing you can do, but keep trying, and keep letting her be accountable.

It's not okay. As a former teacher, I feel like a failure. And as I tell my daughter, I am tired of it, no longer know what to do, and only she can embrace the idea that hard work is essential to success. I have tweaked her diet, added vitamins, made sure occasional treats were in place (so we weren't ridiculously strict), added mommy-and-daughter time into the schedule, given her privacy and quiet for study, added sleep time to her night routine, given her the privilege of reading time, and more. I have tried supervising closely and stepping back to give her more control.

She complained this year that she would not be going to the private middle school that two of her good friends will be attending. I foolishly thought this might be the motivator. "Such a bummer," I said, "but they test you to get into those places. Ds and Fs aren't allowed." This was news to her, and appeared momentarily to awaken her, but ultimately has made no difference.

Next year, she will attend the city middle school that so many rigorously academic parents have criticized for being, well, less rigorous. I welcome this opportunity. A change of pace is just what she needs. With its focus on art and music, the school has chosen to avoid teaching to standard test material. Instead, the principal has spoken to parents about teaching the children how to get along with all kinds--the true melange of city population in a more deliberately paced academic atmosphere as opposed to the higher middle class white enrollment of many of our Christian private schools. Sitting in the middle school auditorium, a room which boasted beautiful wood floors, a set of symphony-issued harps, and classic 1930s architectural details, I listened to the principal speak of his students as the people they were, their accomplishments, and the fact that this school represented our city's history. I was sold. My daughter, having attended the middle school as a prospective student in a shadowing capacity, found herself swayed by a concept I had forgotten entirely: the opposite gender.

I'm screwed, aren't I?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dog Hair, Despair, and Prayer

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook a picture of the enormous quantity of dog hair sucked into the see-through canister of my Dyson vacuum. One vacuuming, one Husky, I wrote. In a comment following the post, I added that I was tired of dog poop, dog hair, and general dog maintenance. The naughty creature had destroyed a box of Kleenex and run into the living room to pee on the floor—an act of defiance because I had appointments out of the house in the afternoon.  Having rubbed her nose in all her messes, kicked her out of the house, and made her wait longer than usual for dinner, our Husky stayed out of my way and would lower her eyes to look sheepishly at me. I wouldn’t touch her or talk to her long after she was allowed to resume her place on the office carpet. Dogs know when they have crossed the line.

This morning, my husband, in his silent way of acknowledging that he understands when I am tired of wiping butts around here, combed a garbage bag full of hair off the dog. The dog only reluctantly submitted to the weight of my husband’s legs across her to keep her from fleeing the dog comb. Today, the dog is remembering hard lessons. I spent the morning out of the house. When I returned, not even a dust bunny was out of place. The garbage (which the old girl occasionally ransacks for paper to destroy when I am gone too long) remained untouched. I put her outside and then sucked up more dog hair with the vacuum. As I write, she sits unusually quietly near the back door waiting for permission to return. The dog has a long memory. Mine is longer.

It’s not just the dog that grates me, I told my husband last night. It’s everything. It’s getting told my son was naughty in school again, feeling disconnected from my daughter, and, due to my hopes having been somewhat dashed by a polite turn-down from the potential of school, the feeling that I am out of control of everything.  My own fate is so hopelessly intertwined with that of others, that I must sit and wait for decisions to be made before I can once again develop a plan. Oh, listen to me just WHINE!

I haven’t written a thing here another dog-owning family-packing individual, male or female, hasn’t felt at one time or another. My husband makes decisions about work that he would make differently if he was not carrying the weight of one wife and four kids… and a dog. Every morning, he empties the dishwasher, brews coffee, brings me a cup of hot java, makes his own breakfast, packs his own lunch, and, to top it off, cleans up after himself. He restocks toilet paper and paper towels on roll holders, takes out the garbage, and brushes hair off the dog.  And only then does he go to work, coming home nearly eleven hours later. The stories he brings home range from tragic to comical, and we discuss them over a drink he has made for me. Perhaps, I shouldn’t complain at all.

And perhaps, dog hair is only a metaphor for everything else—the visible detritus of change. We brush it out, sweep it up, and vacuum it away. It comes again season after season, the massive shedding. My dog takes it quietly. Me, less so.

Wise words came from my sister who called me to provide comfort this morning. I told her I felt purposeless. She told me she loved me, that I was married to the right guy who loved me too, that I was lucky he would have considered altering his plans and waited on his own decisions about a myriad of things while I applied for school, and that it was my turn to be quiet, focus on my family, and prepare for inevitable change. She could feel, she asserted, that the right thing for me was around the corner. Then she tearfully acknowledged how she cannot stand being apart from us. These are all words I had prayed to hear.

Years ago, a priest once told a congregation that we should present ourselves to God the way dogs present themselves to us. Dogs show up on our doorsteps ill or wounded. They lay at our feet peacefully and wait for our intervention and beneficence. Likewise, God sees what must be fixed and does his work. My prayers to God this morning were simple: Transform me into an instrument of your purpose. I will lie still and wait at His feet. 

I'll try not to shed.