Thursday, August 29, 2013

Three Things I'm Learning From Sending My Kid To Kindergarten

This has been Eden’s first week of Kindergarten.  She’s had 3 half-days, and I’ve learned a lot.  I can’t really think about it without getting a sinking feeling in my stomach and tearing up a bit, if that tells you anything.  Here’s 3 things I’m learning and my pro tips for coping, since having my kid 3 days into Kindergarten makes me a pro. 

#1:  Be prepared to be surprised.
You can work hard as a parent to prepare yourself and your child for the next step, and you can still end up unprepared.  Things happen that are out of your control and didn’t appear in the “what-if” scenarios you played in your head for months.  I had two priorities for setting Eden up for success this year.  Firstly, I wanted to find a half-day program, because I feel like that’s enough school for a 5-year-old.  Open-enrollment to a nearby district with half-day Kindergarten accepted – check!  Secondly, I wanted (okay, more like wished) to find a school with teacher-student ratios better than 1:25.  Teacher-student ratio of 1:15 – check! 

But, this first week revealed that I’ve been concerned about all the wrong things.  Or maybe, that there will be a never-ending list of things to be concerned about in this lifelong process of “letting go” of my child.  @#!*% . 

You see, I should have been worrying about her permanent teacher being on maternity leave for the first two months while a fresh-out-of-college sub fills in.  Or, her class being comprised of 2/3rds wild boys and 1/3rd too-scared-to-speak girls. 

Don’t get me wrong…I am probably the most supportive person you will ever find of maternity leave and women taking as long as they possibly can or want to.  And I absolutely love wild boys, especially since I have one.  But brand new subs don’t always have the best classroom management skills, and wild boys will take full advantage of this by “wrestling, fighting, punching, and poking” while said teacher “tried all kinds of things but nothing worked and they didn’t stop.”  (It’s awesome having a very verbal child who gives me a full report of her day.  Well, awesome and sometimes nerve-wracking.)  And the thing that killed me?  My girl telling me she “didn’t talk to any of the kids because those boys made me nervous.” 

Pro tip #1:  When you find yourself approaching a massive event and feel like you’ve checked off everything on your list, write in big, fat letters at the bottom of your list: “THE THING I AM NOT AWARE OF THAT IS ACTUALLY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.”  Try to embrace a meta-narrative that reminds you that you are not in control of your universe, that people and things around you are constantly in play, and that surprises will come.  And then just breathe.  In.  Out.  In.  Out. 

#2:  Overreacting is a skill. 
When my child tells me that her classroom resembles an underage mosh pit with no bouncer, I have a tendency to overreact.  I want to go in the school and drop in the principal’s office to casually ask if she’s thought about mentoring this new sub.  And then meander into Eden’s teacher’s room and casually ask if she’d like me to hang around tomorrow to help.  And I really want to go home and pin all kinds of homeschooling curriculum on pinterest while crafting a letter withdrawing her from public schools. 

I am not even-keeled when it comes to my kids’ safety and happiness and learning.  Most parents aren’t, and that’s okay.  It means we care about our kids.  It’s normal to freak out and overreact. 

Pro tip#2:  Allow yourself to overreact mentally and emotionally, but don’t act on it yet.  Talk it out with safe people (and talk, and talk, and talk – thank you dear friends and patient husband for listening to me this week), run through all the hypothetical scenarios in your head that make you feel worse or better about the current problem, and then do nothing, for now. 

When you’re able, see the situation from everyone else’s perspective.  Imagine those boys who are so excited to be at school and have been picking up on the nervous energy around them for the last week.  Imagine that poor teacher who is on her second bottle of wine while crying into her pillow.  This may help you see new solutions or at least engender compassion and patience. 

#3:  Kids are not as resilient as people say they are. 
Eden told me over lunch today that she was nervous about going to school today.  She was thinking of those boys and her teacher and worried about being in a situation where it felt like no one was in control.

People often say that “kids are resilient,” meaning I guess that they will adapt to a difficult or new situation and find ways to cope with it.  I think this is true, but as with everything, there are degrees.  Some healthy adaptation and coping skills are great.  But coping mechanisms that translate into lifelong struggles are also possible.  Some of my most vivid memories of my elementary school years are the emotionally charged, traumatic ones. 

Kids are easily dismissed in the adult world.  It is often inconvenient to take them seriously.  But I think most adults are walking around with wounds that result from not being taken seriously as children. 

Pro tip #3:  Respect your child’s personhood.  Tell them that their feelings matter and show them you take them seriously.  This is not the same as being a helicopter parent and hovering and becoming codependent.  It means allowing your child to express their feelings openly.  It means teaching your child strategies for dealing with the situation and their feelings.  It means reassuring them that you will help them find a solution, that they will not be left to deal with this by themselves.  And it means dealing with your own emotions separately so that you can be prepared to receive your child’s emotions. 

So this morning, I listened to Eden talk about her nervousness.  I told her I understood.  We talked about how her teacher has had a day to come up with a plan for how to help these boys settle down.  We talked about how the boys might be a little less wild today and make better decisions because they’re getting used to school.  We put on her chewy necklace so she could chew on it when she feels nervous.  We touched her bravery bracelet and talked about how it reminds her that I love her.  I told her she can always tell me what is bothering her and we will find a solution to this problem if it doesn’t get better (and soon!). 

And then off she went.  And I spent the afternoon thinking of nothing else and making “I hope your Kindergarten class sucks less today” cookies for after school. 

And thankfully, today was better than yesterday.  The boys "followed the rules a little bit better" and they got to go outside for recess, too.  I’m slightly encouraged, with a healthy dose of skepticism/wait-and-see thrown in.

And, I'm learning...oh, how educational Kindergarten is for a parent!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


It's midnight, the first minute of my 34th birthday.  

I sit on the front porch, the orange glow of streetlights and the gray glow of my computer screen my lights.  

I hear the creak, crick, creak, crick of my neighbor's swing and think how my kids would love to be on their schedule.  And I hear cicadas, trilling their layered rhythms.  
Today is the first day of my 35th year.  That sounds significant, and old.  I hope this year brings a settledness in my soul.  I still feel like a child much of the time, like my childhood hurts and fears and longings are constantly bubbling to the surface in my snips and snaps and unsettledness.  I hope that this midpoint of my life brings some wearing in...cushions that are not too hard and not too soft, but worn and shaped and contoured just right.  

I wonder if I will still feel like a child when I'm 40, 50, 65.  I came across some old journals last week and was disturbed to see fears, complaints, and conflicts scrawled in my 22 year-old handwriting that I could have just as easily written last week.  Clearly I am in a spiral with these things, but am I heading down, or up?  Am I a tornado, bent towards the ground, destruction, dust?  Or am I a vapor rising from a hot mug, reaching up, cooling, gaining perspective?  

Maybe that answer will come this year, or maybe not until I'm 70.  

I'll spiral on anyway, trusting that I'm held together by Someone who knows who I am, where I'm headed.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dear Ernest Hemingway

Dear Ernest Hemingway,

I really wish I could meet you.  I’m fascinated by the fact that you wrote only 500 words per day.  I say “only” 500, but in reality those were probably the most precise, carefully-chosen 500 words that any writer could put down on paper on any given day.  You wrote 500 words per day, while Stephen King writes 10 pages per day, and it shows in your style. 

I just finished To Have And Have Not, where your economy of style is very apparent.  I thought it was interesting how you shifted perspectives, from a first-person narrator, to a third-person omniscient, to a third-person limited, and back again.  I found myself confused sometimes because I didn’t understand the vernacular or the dialogue, and there wasn’t any help or interpretation from the narrator.  I felt like I was being put in an outsider’s perspective, where I was left to figure out for myself what I could about these people and this culture.

Based on the title of the novel alone, I expected to come across more of a range of economic status in the characters.  Most of the characters that fill the story are the Have Nots…there are the poor revolutionaries, the poor who are doing honest work, the poor who are doing whatever they can, legal or not, to pay the bills, and the poor who are drinking in bars.  It seems like you are showing how the poor cannot be painted in large, monochromatic strokes.  Each of the characters had a different motivation, different strategies, and different loves, although most of them ended up the same:  dead. 

The Haves were mostly relegated to short descriptions towards the end of the story, as they slept in oblivion in their yachts while the Have Nots mourned the deaths of their own.  It was almost like you were reversing the space and time that is usually afforded to the poor and wealthy.  The wealthy, who typically dominate the headlines and magazine covers and radio waves and pages, are shelved until twenty or so pages at the end.  The poor, who are typically overlooked and stereotyped, are allowed to live fully dimensional lives in your story. 

The best 382 words (yes, I counted them) are in the brilliant Chapter Nineteen.  The entire theme of the novel lies in Chapter Nineteen in seed form.  I know I don’t need to summarize it for you because you wrote it, but it really is amazing.  The wealthy writer and tourist, Richard Gordon, sees a woman and instantly comes to all kinds of conclusions about her…she is unattractive, she has no sexual desire, her husband cheats on her because she has let herself go, she is unsupportive of her husband’s struggles.  Gordon hurries home to include her in the novel he is writing about a poor man working in a textile factory.  He thinks of what he wrote: “It was good.  It was, it could be easily, terrific, and it was true.  He had seen, in a flash of perception, the whole inner life of that type of woman.” 

In reality, she is Marie Morgan, Harry’s wife…she is beautiful in Harry’s eyes, she has great sexual desire for him, he is faithful to her, he loves her bleached hair and strength in size, and she wants her husband alive more than she wants the income he can get from his risky jobs, despite their poverty.  In reality, she is one half of a happy, vibrant, and loving marriage. 

My first reaction to Chapter Nineteen is that Gordon is a pompous ass.  He just flattened that woman and doesn’t even know her.  He is judging her based on his upper-class, oversexualized, white sensibilities and tastes.  He doesn’t know the first thing about appreciating a woman, so how would he know what kind of man would appreciate this particular woman?  And yet he claims that his perspective is true. 

I want to align myself with Marie, to feel fierce against those who misjudge and destroy.  And then I remember how you, Mr. Hemingway, left me on the outside during much of this novel.  I may understand some things about the poor, and you let me understand some things about the poor characters in your novel, but can I claim to truly understand the “whole inner life of that type of” person?  Aren’t we all guilty of judging each other based on our own sensibilities and tastes, our inherited prejudices and beliefs that we may not even be aware of? 

I was struck by how vulnerable writers are to this kind of (mis)judgment…we try to pay attention to detail, to understand how people’s minds work, to practice empathy, to bring insight or epiphany to our readers.  But how often are our “flash[es] of perception” merely an outsider’s murky view?  The writer’s pen has the power to both enlighten and slander.  Although Gordon, I hope, is not a good example of a good writer.  He vacations to Key West to view the natives from a comfortable distance, and doesn’t bother speaking to the woman he believes to understand completely.  He writes about a class struggle that he doesn’t participate in.  I guess the lesson to writers is to write what you know, and if you don’t know, then either experience it firsthand or talk to a bunch of people who have.  

Thank you for giving this novel to the world, Mr. Hemingway.  Thank you for the reminder to be a ruthless editor and to make each word count.  And thank you for proving that just a few words each day can create something meaningful. 


Friday, August 2, 2013

What Happened To My Summer Reading Program

What happened is, I got summer brain.  I tend to be a bit perfectionistic about writing book reviews, and so after doing my one and only review of The Great Gatsby, which entailed taking notes while reading and spending a couple hours doing research and writing it, I got summer brain and didn’t feel like doing any more.  But I have been reading.  And I would like to have some record of what I read this summer and my thoughts about those books, so I’ve devised a reader-response method that takes the pressure off and is a little more personal. 

Dear Sherman Alexie,

I loved your novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  I just finished it five minutes ago and you had me laughing and crying there at the end.  I’ll admit, I’m not usually that excited about books that put me in an adolescent boy’s brain space, but I would happily live in Junior’s head for hundreds more pages if you’d care to write them. 

Thank you for giving us your character’s insider perspective on life on a reservation in America.  Towards the end of the book, Junior comments that reservations were designed to be death camps, that Native Americans were supposed to go there and live until they died off.  And how many of them are now complying with that plan through pervasive alcoholism.  I’ve never thought of it like that.  I never realized how torn someone would feel who wanted to be a part of their Indian community and yet also wanted to have opportunities beyond what the reservation affords. 

I was surprised by how much I could relate to Junior, even though I’ve never been the only one of my race, anywhere.  But I’ve been in the tribe of the outsider in other ways.  Junior reminded me that there are all kinds of tribes, and that I have connections with most people in ways I would never expect. 

I felt a little stung by the character of the wealthy white man who showed up at Junior’s Grandmother’s funeral to return the pow-wow costume.  I see in him the ways that (possibly well-meaning) white people love Native American culture to the point of objectifying it and making it something it isn’t.  Maybe that’s not love; maybe it’s fascination, or guilt, or shame, manifested as a love for the external objects associated with Native culture, but lacking any real knowledge of any real people.  I guess you can’t love Native Americans without actually knowing a Native American. 

As a white person, I feel tentative and nervous around Native American culture.  I don’t want to offend; I don’t know if it’s okay but I feel a little guilty about living in a city called Cuyahoga Falls that contains no Iroquois population.  A quick glance at my city’s Wikipedia page makes no mention of the First Americans who lived where I do now…I guess they were long gone by the time the white people settled here.  Junior’s perspective tells me that Native Americans don’t want to be saved by white people, they don’t want to be flattered by white people, they don’t want to be objects of fascination.  I'm not sure what they do want, if anything.  And as I write "they," I think to myself, "they probably don't all want the same thing."

What I come away with most from this book is the realization of how similar I am to Junior.  We are all sloppily finding our tribes, hurting people along the way, losing people and relationships we love, forgiving people even though they will never change, and learning new things about ourselves that surprise us.  Junior and I are not the same, and our differences are vast.  But Mr. Alexie, if I’m reading you right, it seems that we are more alike than different. 

I’m looking forward to reading more of what you wrote.  Thanks for giving this book to the world.