Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Open Letter to Teachers: Thank You

This week, instead of packing a Christmas gift to send to my children's teachers, I sat down and wrote a letter of gratitude. I wanted all the teachers in our life to be aware of how much they are valued, especially in light of the traumatic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Each teacher received a copy of this today. Here, for a broader thank you to all who serve children, is the letter. I removed the full names of my children and their pictures here, but those were included in the original text.

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for teaching my child. Thank you for showing up every day ready for class and for whatever insanity my child and his or her classmates throw at you. Having been in your shoes, I can say with certainty that there are likely many days where you have said, after dealing with some miscreant’s antics, that you could not teach another day. But yet you rose the next morning, returned to school, and re-committed yourself to educating young people. Thank you for that.

I place my trust in you and the school system where my children learn. I trust when you tell me that my son was a hothead and my daughter was an airhead that, in those moments, they were. We deal at home accordingly, backing up your every word. I know that when my child enters the school halls, that you are taking over for me for the next several hours. You will see my children in their best and weakest moments. You will strive to raise them up, to give them long term goals, to help them mature into people with vision. Your work extends far beyond ABCs and scientific theories, tests and art projects; you are creating a thinking person who will make the world better than it is now.

Thank you for coming back to school this week to send the message to my children that their schools are safe, while the rest of the world fights to make that a more believable truth. I trembled Monday morning as I put my little son on the bus and cast reminders to my daughter as she departed. I said to myself that it would all be okay. With you at our side, fighting to protect our children, working to restore our faith in humanity, how could it not be? This weekend, I told my son and daughter that teachers are heroes, that not one of you would ever hesitate to protect them. I believe that. I was a teacher once too. We are the guardians of souls and so much more.

It is okay to grieve now, to be afraid. To deny that part of yourself would be to deny your own humanity. To continue to commit to my children and others in your work despite your grief and fear is an act of bravery. You will always be a hero to us.

Merry Christmas, dearest Teacher! You are in my prayers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Troll Patrol

I just this week told my husband that I feel like I am living with a troll. I was referencing my twelve-year-old daughter. “You’re not going to tell her that, are you?” he asked. “Of course not,” I said, feigning mortification. Truthfully, I have implied this before, however, when telling her how she stomps around the house.

Not only is our Chicken Little heavy footed, but she leaves a trail of crumbs that betray her efforts to hide her snacking out-of-zone. I can trace her steps through the kitchen, to the living room, and up the stairs on any given day. I may come home to find explosions in the microwave and shredded cheese across the counter, her dishes piled at the side of the sink. At this point, I nudge our troll into action and watch her scuttle about vacuuming and wiping the detritus left behind.

She often acts half-wittedly, such as with her approach to laundry. Recently, I had a load of whites in the dryer ready to be folded. She removed her wet jeans from the washer and put them in with the dry whites and ran the dryer again. Of course, this resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to dry anything. Having found this late at night when she was already in bed, I had to take care of the matter myself, sort and re-dry items, and when I told her about it, received her standard, a wide-eyed dreamy “Whaaatttt?”

The other week, I pulled out the laundry she had folded, which contained a vast amount of items that couldn’t be put away because  when I picked them up, they had been crumpled into random layers, not a corner to corner in sight, not a neat line or crease anywhere. Meanwhile, her little brother jet-folded into perfect quarters stacks of washcloths and napkins. I pointed this out to my Chicken Little, at which she said, “Whaaatttt?” and then with a goofy smile redid the folding. 

Yesterday, I had asked for her help sorting placemats and napkins from potholders and kitchen towels in the large bins I keep in our dining room on the rolling rack. When I went in to check her progress, she had done what the trolls among us do—a sort of assemblage of semi-related items in random ways, with non-matching items tucked between them. Everything had to be removed from the bins, refolded, regrouped with similar items, and then put away one more time. It’s exhausting making sure she doesn’t slack on the job.

This morning, she was, at my husband’s suggested tactic, picking out the rabbit food from his bedding due to her having recklessly poured so much food in the feeder that it spilt everywhere. Later, she may have to put away her laundry, which she will likely shove in random drawers, therefore complicating how she chooses her outfits in the morning, and resulting in crumply mismatched pairings. Rejected outfits will become piled at the foot of her bed, which is another matter in itself; for in her bed (IN her bed), she hordes notebooks, pens, pencils, markers, scissors, novels, and toys. I don’t know how she sleeps between my forced evacuations of such accumulating odds and ends. Only a troll would know.

Toilet paper-replacing is another challenge with our pre-teen, who having not yet mastered the art of hygiene, might skip replacing an empty cardboard roll and opt for some kind of shake and dodge maneuver instead, leaving whoever comes after her in a serious lurch. And don’t ask about hand washing. On more than one occasion, I have bent over to kiss her good night, detected a foul odor and sent her back to the bathroom for a sound application of hot water and soap.  Despite the shower she took before church today, I noted rings of grey in the creases of her neck, and was appalled. Like I said, we live with a troll.

My husband offers advice for troll-coaching. “Find a way not to be angry when you talk to her about this.” But it is hard not be angry or frustrated when you have spent days, months, and years repeating yourself. Like how she chews with her mouth open or talks to me with sour cream pasted across her upper lip and cheek, and I have to say, for the millionth time, how not to eat like a troll. Kids wonder what’s wrong with their parents—why can’t they smile more, why can’t they be fun? Because we live with trolls.

I asked a friend the other day how long this phase lasts—he sighed, pursed his lips, thought a minute, and then said, “Yeah. Yep. It goes to about age seventeen.” He clapped me on the back. “Settle in. It’s a long road.” Yes, it is a long road— with a bridge on it that the troll lives under.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Damn the Elf on a Shelf

Contrary to the true spirit of Christmas, I hate Elf on a Shelf.

My kids’ father has an Elf on a Shelf, and so for a time, the kids enjoyed it down there when they would visit during the holidays. Tiny and Chicken Little wanted me to get one, but I would resist. “No,” I would say, “Let that be your father’s tradition and we can have other traditions.” This year though, I lost my common sense and decided we could get an elf. At Barnes and Noble, my son and I looked at all the boxes of elves.  We opened one and looked it over—the box had a hole cut in the plastic window so the little fella could breathe. We reached in and tried to poke it with a finger. The elf looked all skinny and shocked, with cartoonish dilated pupils and a forced smile, like a miniature crack addict in a cheap red suit. “Creepy,” said my son. So at another store, we found similar elves, but these were fuzzy. What a good idea, I thought foolishly, that way the kids will want to touch and play with it. They chose a girl elf and my daughter spent the rest of the evening embellishing her with earrings, a sparkly hair bow, and a tiny tutu for an underskirt. I had to rescue the thing from her, remind Chicken Little about her habit to glom all over things and take over, and passed the elf to Tiny for him to cuddle before bedtime.

But apparently, touching the elf is against the rules. In fact, the elf has lots of rules, and while the kids stood behind me at the store laying out who would do what with the elf and when, what they didn’t tell me until they got home were all the conditions of owning an elf as those applied to parents. As it turns out, you have to move it every night. The elf is really a stool pigeon for Santa. The elf is supposed to leave notes. And there is supposed to be some sort of scavenger hunt. Our third day of owning the elf resulted in a complete melee before school one morning, where I busted Chicken Little for fooling with the elf while the one who was actually to blame allowed his sister to take the heat.  At one point, I announced to the oldest that Mommy had a full-time job and it didn’t include time for fooling with an imaginary toy. Yes, shock, horror, and the corruption of childhood innocence, all on an ordinary Wednesday morning.

We managed to recover somewhat. Our elf has left one note. I have been kind enough to see to the elf’s comfort in our house—the providing of a Kleenex for a nose blowing, the application of chapstick, and even a refreshing yoga workout (downward-facing-elf). There will be no scavenger hunt, but the elf may make her way to the top of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

I see some of my friends’ elves have perused liquor cabinets and hung out in the Barbie car to pick up chicks. I celebrate that creativity. Largely, however, I am interested in getting rid of this elf. Is it flammable? Does it have a life expectancy? Does Santa ever recall his elves back to the factory? Parents have told me that they have purchased one elf per child to resolve the tensions created by owning one of Santa’s helpers. I find this to be a sad state of affairs and plan to write Santa immediately about how this recent tradition of Elf on a Shelf is really dividing households and causing pain and consternation. In the meantime, what is the elf really reporting to Santa? “All is well chez Catiche as far as the kids are concerned, but I think the mother needs to be moved to the naughty list.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ADHD: The Best Boy in the World

My son was officially diagnosed with ADHD this year. This comes as no surprise to anyone who really knows him. I find myself in an interesting place, however. There are the parents who tell me they do not advocate use of medication (and for good reasons) and then there are those who, like me, put up a long battle and finally say to the doctor, "My child needs more than what I can do for him." Medication is a tricky deal. Side effects, risks from long-term usage, a journey that requires time and patience to adjust meds. My theory behind the medication is that it clears up his brain fog just enough so we can work on teaching new behaviors (making good choices, speech therapy, and how to organize). While I hope medication is not a long-term need, I do, however, know quite a few people with other disorders who will be on their meds for life. I see his need for meds but worry about it at the same time.

We did what so many others have done when a child seems recklessly driven by an internal motor like Tiny's: vitamins, changing diet, participation in physical activities such as sports and yoga, running the track before class or in-between classes, meditation and visualization exercises (yes, really), behavior modification, reward and consequences, stimulation gadgets he could fool with to burn off the fidgets and wiggles (he would ultimately break those), and adjusting sleep schedules. While elements of these things have relieved some of Tiny's tendencies to be on a constant search-and-destroy mission, they were no real redirection. One of the things that pushed me to look into medication was the acknowledgment that his behavior, documented in child study meetings, psychological evaluations, and countless emails with teachers, was making him feel like he was a failure, and nothing we were doing to naturally relieve his symptoms would help. One day, I said to my ex-husband as we discussed ways to help Tiny, "Imagine what it must be like to be him." Silence followed as we both digested the fact that our boy had become the stand-out in his school for a history of erratic, destructive, loud, paranoid, angry, and occasionally defiant, behavior. His academic performance was mediocre, but I have always known that within Tiny's body is a sharp, bright mind. How could we help him be who he needed to be?

Tiny is on a low dose of Adderall XR. He takes a multivitamin, which I have begun to give 30 minutes before his ADHD meds instead of at the same time, and two doses of fish oil a day. He sees two specialists who work with children who have ADHD, anxiety, and other emotional disorders. Something interesting is happening. While he is still the busy boy I would expect a boy to be--climbing, running, playing, building forts out of blocks or boxes and knocking them over with a triumphant hurrah--he is communicating far more clearly and causing less and less conflict at school and home. While he has always been Mommy's Tiny, as I call him, he is increasingly pleasurable to do things with. He takes his time to explain in detail why he needs his space/toys not encroached upon instead of yelling and throwing things. He follows directions quickly. His attention span has increased and he spends an hour if not longer on his legos or his elaborate drawings. He is working better toward long-term goals.

The hardship lies in sensitivity, which the addition of fish oil to his routine seems to abate lately. There have been many afternoons where he cries easily or is irritated easily by others. There was a meltdown at school one day last week--but it was only the second one in a month of the new treatment, whereas before, I was being emailed or called nearly daily with reports. Tiny is improving. He is also learning how to listen to his body when he needs to relax or change environments. He charts his own behavior on a calendar beside his activity table at home.

Moments ago, my son came to see me to ask permission to play outside. I told him to change out the t-shirt he was wearing for a long-sleeved shirt and to put socks on. He did as asked and came again to show me he had followed directions. He stood sweetly, his sandy hair framing his precious little face. I pulled him into my lap to tell him what a good boy he was, to say that he was the best boy in the world, and that I believed he was a gift. He tucked his head under my chin and cuddled. Then we talked about how his body was feeling and if he needed help with his occasional headaches (a side-effect). Tiny scooted out the door to play and returned moments later with a calm remark that the neighbor's kids weren't awake to play yet and that he was going upstairs to play legos. And on he went. I can hear him constructing a world and creating a narrative to go along with it--chatting and happy play noises becoming music against the clicking of my keyboard as a write. This scene would have played out in battle only a month or two ago.

I remember crying to my father a few years ago that Tiny was a special needs child and I was so frustrated with his lack of processing and understanding. He was this wild thing that wouldn't learn safety from painful accidents and for whom punishments meant nothing. He always was, though, what I told him this morning: the best boy in the world. And he always will be. We simply see more of the wondrous capacity he has to live happily than we have before. While medication is of great concern, great blessings have abounded because of it. I don't call it a cure-all, nor have I advocated it to other parents yet. Instead, I operate on a wait-and-see basis. Each child's mind and biology are unique. What I have found though is beautiful support from other parents with special children. For this, I thank each of you--keep the support and the ideas coming.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The More Things Change

There is a picture I cannot throw away: the last house I grew up in, my mother, my then-fiancé and I (the weekend he proposed), and my sister and her then-fiancé, as they stood beside a moving truck with her belongings tucked inside. I was 22, barefoot and standing on a piece of shade in the July heat. My left hand was raised to show the engagement ring I was wearing. My fiancé was standing behind me in his typical way, one hand in his pocket. He was waving at my father, who took the picture. The house behind me would drown in Hurricane Katrina 11 years later. The marriages would fail. The relationship between my sister and I would come to a great divide. Only my mother, who is still married to the picture-taker, and the concrete street itself remain as steadfastly as before. Even the yard, trees, and sidewalk would later be claimed by floodwater, then the backhoes would scrape away whatever was the last physical reminder of our home.

I hold this photo, as proof that I did once live in this place and I was once closely entangled with the people in it. I remember a life before more life—children, dogs, multiple moves, travels—and the end of things—flood, divorce, deaths, endings. History is the embodiment of bittersweetness. Would I wish to be the girl in the picture again? A girl near the same age as that of my step-daughters? The girl who was facing marriage but didn’t really know what she wanted to be when she grew up? No. But this is a good picture, and one that is also glorious. We were all young there, with so much ahead. I can hear the voices of each person present, feel the summer pressing down on our skin, and even retreat into the memory of that cool, blue-brick house for iced tea and a seat on the embroidered, floral couch after the moving truck pulled away. 

What I miss is what could have been simpler, easier, less harrowing—but I have learned that no hard change comes without its own reward anyway, and so I type this from the comfortable colonial home in a historic town 1000 miles away from the footprint of that picture. My pretty children snooze upstairs in rooms I decorated to their taste. My second husband irons his own clothes as he watches a documentary on baseball in the next room and casually offers reassurances about our holiday plans. Our dog rests behind me, her back pressed to the legs of my chair. She chases rabbits in her sleep as she dreams, too old to pursue such things in her waking hours anymore.

I still talk to everyone involved with that picture, some more than others, and all for different reasons. I can still close my eyes and see everything as it once used to be. You know, I once heard this expression—the more things change, the more they remain the same. I no longer believe that to be true.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bullying... with Jesus

I am having a little trouble with something, and am trying to gently express this special request. I hope that what I say here might give some people pause for consideration of the wording of their messages on Facebook and blog comments throughout the Web.

Throughout the recent presidential campaign, while I found people to be publicly kind when expressing thoughts, the Web became a free for all and many posts were hard to take. Readers were told to wake up, that they were blind to truth, that they were allowing the media to delude them, and referred to as ignorant. Would you have said such a thing to your neighbor over dinner? Would you have told this to your mom or to your boss at work? 

A general assumption was made that people were not following the news, conducting research, or in any other manner carefully weighing the voter decision. And finally, of course, God was used as a weapon, as a way to represent the be-all and end-all. Does this not smack a bit of judgment? Are some of you aware of how it might feel to be preyed upon by Facebook friends or blog buddies in this manner? Certainly, I have enough faith in humanity to know that if those who do this were aware of their impact that they would have chosen a better way to frame their ideas. I can tell you this morning that one gentleman told me the attitude of certain people pushed him away from choosing their candidate. He was reluctant to be part of a group that didn’t seem welcome to the variety of reasons and ideas that should be considered in the decision-making process in general. He felt alienated. I understand. Right now, I feel bullied… by Jesus.

While some posts were blatantly callous, others were blindsiding. One Facebooker posted a lovely sentiment about looking within our hearts. When I expressed nicely that I was still on the fence and considering points of view, I was told that if I read my Bible, I would know what the answer is, and among other things said, I was fairly well accused of being one who was ill-informed or misdirected—for still working to come to a sound decision. In that same chain of post and responses, another person cited disapproval of a candidate’s religion. Do you remember that John F. Kennedy was our first and only Catholic president? His Catholicism was often used as a point of doubt by those who opposed his candidacy and election, yet today he is cited as one of our most popular and best presidents. 

The religious posts have taken the form of bullying. Many plead us to pray for the half of the country that “voted wrongfully.” Posts are constant, and the worst ones I remove from my newsfeed, but that doesn’t stop the feeling of sympathy for those being hounded by pages full of bitter Jesus-wielders. To those that keep crying defeat and fear for the future of our country, find solace in knowing that our history has often held our citizens to flames of doubt, and we have survived: stock market crashes, World Wars, the Great Depression, polio scares, and more. Each time, it was not fear that drove us to rise. We rose again because we fought to do so. The only difference between then and now is that it is easier to quickly expose the masses to every worldly event and our opinions about it. So put your pack on your back and march on, fair soldier. Have faith. Have hope.

I researched my voting decision carefully, not even telling my husband who I voted for until the election results were coming in. My goal was to be happy with the decision I made; to combine reason, rationality, and instinct; and to find the blessing in the ability to vote and watch an election come to a resolution. What I ultimately wanted was a message sent to whoever earned the title of president: Many in this country weren’t sure enough of your principles to endorse you. Please do your best to inspire us and resolve the crises close to our hearts. When I left the voting booth Tuesday, I was completely at peace with my decision.

To the people who write that those who voted for Obama should be prayed for—to have some kind of political conversion or eye-opening, they say—I am sorry to say your message is not being received as goodwill. It feels like you are passing out hair shirts. I offer this morsel of thought: Perhaps, God in all his infinite wisdom, desired a close election after all, and called individuals to vote a certain way for reasons beyond our understanding. Or perhaps, God in all his infinite power, doesn’t need an election by limited mortals on one patch of land in the globe to effect change. Do you think it might be, maybe, a kind of errant supposition on our part, that we are so great, so noble, so flawless, our spot at the right hand of God so given, that we should belittle, patronize, or  criticize others as we attempt to cling to virtue? Do you think, given the hand-to-hand battles of daily life, that an unconditionally loving God would punish you for your vote

Over recent years, the word “Christian” has morphed from not just “follower of Christ,” but to become more synonymous with “charitable.” What I wish is for those who do claim Christian as part of our heritage and faith, and continue to espouse it in our public posts, to exercise both meanings of the word, in hopes of inspiring those that remain to follow.