Little Miss Independent

Written October, 2009
          My daughter is two years old, and she’s been independent from the day she could crawl in her own direction.  Even then, before she could talk, she picked out her own clothes with low grunts at correct choices and loud screams at wrong ones.  She would crawl over to the closet, pointing at a particular sweater, and make clear her passion for fashion.  “Lily do it by self” is a phrase I hear every half hour at least, and it applies to most tasks: taking off her diaper, getting dressed, getting in the bath, getting out of the bath, walking to the car, getting in the car, getting strapped in her car seat, getting out of the car.  You get the idea.  And it has led to many showdowns between her and me when we don’t have time for her to “do it by self.”  At Target, at Wal-mart, in our driveway, in our house, at friends’ homes, in crazy Twister-like positions  in which we’ve found ourselves during a diaper change.  Lily’s independence can wear me out.
          I try to remember that someday her independence will serve her well.  I prayed against fear for my little girl as soon as I knew I had one brewing.  As a child, and an adolescent, and as an early adult, I was full of fear.  I let my fears stop me from doing so many things.  I let them rule my actions for a long time in many ways, and I didn’t want that for my little girl.  I want her to embrace life and meet challenges with the belief that it’s alright to fail, but you have to try to get anywhere at all.  That she is worth it because she’s a human being, with thoughts and feelings just as valid as anyone else’s.  That she was born for a reason.
          I’ve wanted all of this for my daughter, but apparently I didn’t realize I’d be the one dealing with the day-to-day development of a fearless woman.  It seems ironic that I fretted about her courage when she jumps off a jungle gym into nothingness, or when her determination to eat play dough far exceeds her fear of the consequences.  I got what I asked for, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.
          And then the other day she didn’t want to eat by herself.  She is perfectly capable of eating her cereal with a spoon (that was something she knew she could “do by self” before she actually could), but for some reason the other day she decided she couldn’t.  We have now entered a new stage of “ I need help,” and I’m not sure I like it any better.  I was surprised at my reaction to those words.  All those days we went head-to-head over who was the adult, and when she said she needed help eating her cereal I immediately feared (there it is again) she had lost her gumption.  It’s ridiculous, I know, but it reveals how deep down my desire is for Lily to have confidence.  And how, even though it is hard to deal with her growing into that confidence, it’s a noble task worth doing.
          I’m sure this is only a regressive phase – that soon enough she’ll jump headlong back into her independent ways.  It’s in her nature, and I’m glad.  But for now, I’m going to enjoy her need of me, knowing it will be short-lived, and remember that I asked for this.  And pray that my little warrior will use her powers for good someday, and watch what she becomes.

Gearing Up

          I might not typically take much notice of the boys outside the coffee shop I’m in, around eleven years old, eating caramel covered apples and hitting each other with wads of paper.  But today when I saw them I saw my own son and was struck by the fact that soon enough he will be eleven, and then eighteen, and then a full-blown grown-up.  He is only seven and a half, but I know it will come faster than I can believe.
          I get glimpses each day of the man he will someday be peeking through the little boy he is now.  When he rolls his eyes in annoyance, or carries in a bag of groceries for me, or wears boxer briefs instead of his hot wheels undies.  Or when he looks at me with his green-blue eyes and says in all seriousness “I want to go on a date with you.”  We do that sometimes.  Our “dates” can be anything – any activity that only includes us.  Once to a museum, after which we got ice cream, once on a walk, after which we got ice cream, once to the doctor’s office and grocery store.  After which we got ice cream.  He and Marc go on dates too, and it also always involves a treat.  Surely that is part of the draw for Luke.  But he also loves the chance to spend one-on-one time with his mom or dad, getting all the attention, all the head pats, all the hand-holding he wants.  He actually wants to be with us, and it’s great.
          We had a particularly fun summer – mornings together while Lily was in preschool and Mae was asleep.  I made a concerted effort to ignore all the things that “needed” to be done and spend my time on the things that truly needed to be done.  For my son.  I chose making gloop over dusting and doing science experiments about carbon dioxide over vacuuming.  It was awesome.  My house was gross, but my relationship with Luke deepened, and as I’ve heard countless times, in twenty years that’s what will matter.
          Plus, gloop is way more fun than dusting.
          I know that a day is coming when he won’t want to go on a date with his mom.  There will be a phase, and that phase could be long, where he thinks I am lame and uninformed and embarrassing.  I remember those days with my own parents.  I once hid on the floorboard of our brown Chevy at a Sonic, because, horror of horrors, I was there with my parents.  And I knew the car hop.  And he was hot.  My dad proceeded to tell the hot waiter that I was hiding in the bottom of the car and I was forced to emerge, red-faced and scarred for life.  Nice, Dad.  But how embarrassed could I have been to hide like that rather than be seen with my family?  Very, I guess.  I hate to think of Luke feeling that way about us, but it will come.  And it will suck.  And then it will pass.
          Luke started second grade today.  I walked him the two and a half blocks to school, taking in the sunlight, the welcomed cool air after a ridiculously hot summer, the tingling excitement that comes with a first day.  I watched neighborhood kids reunite after two months apart, giggling with nervousness and joy, and I thought of his first day of kindergarten.  We have a picture from that day of him walking, proudly wearing his new astronaut-monkey backpack full of school supplies, his hair combed and clothes unwrinkled, ready to leave me and his early childhood in the past.  That was a hard day.  Today he wore the same backpack, but I noticed on the way that his hair wasn’t combed and realized we’d forgotten to buy glue.  And we weren’t really worried.  So different than that first, first day.  It’s already normal to go back to school.  It’s also normal to get a big kiss from me as he heads in to class, which I know will change soon.
          I’m sure these boys outside the coffee shop wouldn’t welcome a big kiss from their mommy as they joke with their friends.  I can hear the “Geez, Mom” now.  It’s not too far off, this next stage; the eye-rolling is just the beginning.  I will miss his hugs, the fact that he thinks I’m funny, and even the never-ending descriptions of his lego creations.  I will look back longingly at the days of making gloop in summer and going on dates to get ice cream.  I know I will cry over the loss of my baby boy many times.  But it will also be astounding to watch him navigate adolescence, discover himself and the world, and morph into a man.  When I think of the way he fit into the crook of my arm when he was new to the world, and now he reaches my chest when he gives me a hug, my mind is just about blown.  So far I’ve enjoyed each stage, at least in part, and I’m sure that even in adolescence there will be something to appreciate – bits of my sweet boy peeking through the tough exterior of puberty.  Or of his future, mature self emerging.  I can’t say that I’m ready, or ever will be, for Luke to think his mom’s a dope, but I’m gearing up for it.  And if he happens to want to go on dates with me all through puberty, I’ll consider it a bonus and take him out for ice cream.

Blank Page

          A blank page staring back at me is a gift or a curse, depending on the moment.  Depending on whether I have anything to say.  On a day filled with inspiration, it’s clean and new and ready to be filled with crisp black letters, lined up evenly, contained in a set space, but limited only by my overflowing brain.  It’s hope and promise and all that’s good in the world.  But on a day void of ideas my point of view flips – a blank page is  endless and plain.  Not lovely in-and-of itself, but wanting.  Lonely and desolate.
          Really, a blank page isn’t good or bad or anything but blank.  It’s all about perspective, like everything else in the world.  I tell my kids this all the time.  Luke complains about dinner, we point to the photos on the wall from Marc’s trip to Africa – the kids with yellow eyes from malnutrition and liver disease.  Lily whines for every item in the toy store, and we point out the kids outside the homeless shelter on our way home.
          But even more, I have to remind myself about changing my own perspective.
          During the school year, evenings are rough.  Making dinner, feeding the baby, monitoring homework and piano practice, throwing the kids in the bath and running in to wash a bit of them from time to time, putting the baby to bed, all the while being yelled at (my children are so excited about all things in life that they yell everything they say) by two voices at once to “watch this” and that “he’s copying me” and “she hit me in the face with a car”, and asking me scientific questions about spiders and black holes or correcting me on which Disney princess wears yellow.  Was that sentence long and exhausting to read?  Exactly.
           But on a good day I can see these things differently.  On a day where I’ve woken up with a decent amount of sleep, or I’ve had a bit of a break, or God has graced me with inexplicable patience and energy, I can see the flip side of life with three kids.  Yes, I’m making dinner, but I am doing so with quinoa from South America that I have simply purchased at Costco for a reasonable price, instead of digging up potatoes in my field and cooking them over a fire I made from sticks.  Boo-hoo.  On a good day I can see that the baby I’m feeding is so patient and sweet and dimpled, she is the easiest part of my day, and she will only be this way for a moment.  My son rocks at math and is tending to his super-brain in the dining room.  We can afford piano lessons.  Bathtime – well, I guess the upside is we have running water.  My children’s minds teem with creative questions and ideas – everything is new and exciting and full of promise, as it should be.
           I’ve taught my kids a phrase that we recite when one of us is being ungrateful, which is most days.  “Let’s have an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ guys.”  I heard it on the radio once and loved it.  It rhymes, which kids like and makes it easy to remember, and it sums up the frame of mind we need.  I remind them of it from time to time, but I also need to remind myself.  This crazy life is a gift.  Crazy means it’s full.  Of people we love, and things to do, and the resources with which to do them.  If I am sitting down writing a blog, if you are sitting down reading a blog, I can assume we are in a mutual state of having been fed, sheltered and blessed with an internet connection.  We are not  suffering from starvation, or dying from the record-breaking temperatures, or being sold into the sex trade.  We may have our problems, but there’s always something worse.  Always something to be grateful for.  Always others to worry about more than ourselves.
           I started this post the other day with a blank page, and a blank mind to match.  I had nothing to say, except the bit about blank pages, because that’s how I felt.  During my three hours of writing time I put my head down a lot, checked email, updated my shopping cart on Amazon, and I ended up with one paragraph and two sentences.  Not a success.  But today I have some ideas rolling around up top and my blank page has changed.  It is full.  Whether it was a mood swing, an energy burst, or the yummy bubble tea I’m currently drinking, something shifted my perspective of this empty page to a space full of potential, waiting to spill over with words.  I’m grateful for that.  Sometimes it takes more than a couple days to see a situation in a different light.  Some things are just plain hard and you need serious effort, and prayer and caffeine to be able to change your point of view.  To see how anyone else has it worse.  Those days do come.  But the rest of the time we can keep on truckin’, looking at the flip side, having an attitude of gratitude and teaching our kids to do the same.

Helpless

         Helplessness feels terrible.  Like flailing arms and legs, smacking against  anything close by and bruising the skin without knowing how to stop.  Watching coverage of the Waldo Canyon fires this summer was heart-breaking.  I have many friends in Colorado Springs, and I worried for their homes, as well as their lives, as the flames jumped Queens Canyon and shot down the mountain.  Witnessing devastation on such a large scale, when it’s impossible to help, hurts the heart.
          Feeling helpless yourself is awful, too.  I had an abscessed tooth in the fall and I felt more helpless than any time I can remember since being a kid..  There was no way to breathe through the pain as I had done in childbirth.  No way to get away from it at all.  It was in my head, throbbing and constant and exponentially worsening every twenty minutes.  Waiting until morning when the dentist’s office opened was torture, and it shook my nerves to feel so fragile.  But that’s still not the worst.
          The worst kind of helpless is for someone you love. Someone right in front of you, close enough to touch but who feels miles away when you can’t do anything to help the pain.  My four-year-old daughter Lily had mono last winter, and along with it, hives which recurred for two and a half months.  Not every day, but most, and it was a sad thing to watch.  I remember once lying with her in the middle of the night while she cried inconsolably from the itching.  I had woken up to her cries and gone to see what was wrong.  It was too dark to see the state of her skin, and I didn’t want to wake up my son who shares her room, so I got a flashlight to assess the damage.  When I shone the light on her little leg I gasped at the sight.  Big, red welts all over.  As I moved the light across her body – to her other leg, her arms, her neck and face, her feet – every bit was covered in itchy blotches.  She looked diseased.  My heart broke for her and I wanted to cry, too.
          I ran downstairs and looked up home remedies for hives online.  There wasn’t much.  A cool washcloth, Benadryl (which hadn’t helped before), some herbs I didn’t have.  I tried the washcloth, but cold and wet on top of itchy was not what she wanted; she only cried harder.  As she tossed and flailed her arms and legs around I recognized the same feeling within myself.  Knowing that there was nothing I could do to help, no remedy available that I could administer, made my heart flail.  My mind raced, grasping for some way to make it better.  My little girl who during the day can make me crazy with the number of times I have to ask her to put on her shoes, who causes me to employ deep breathing just to get through her tantrums, who’s favorite word is “actually,” meaning she has changed her mind about what she wants for lunch once again – this little being had my heart.  The sight of her pain rocked me.  It wasn’t life-threatening and really only had immediate consequences – no long-term problems would occur from this bout of hives – but knowing I couldn’t do a thing to help my baby girl made me ache.
          And it was good for me.
          We need to feel helpless sometimes.  It makes us humble.  Makes us realize our smallness in the wide universe.  Gets rid of our western self-centeredness.  It frees us up from trying to control everything and gives us open hands, even pleading ones – for help.  From clenched fist to open palm.  This is a lesson I have to be reminded of repeatedly, as I’m a fist-clencher by nature.  Which is why when Lily had hives and I couldn’t fix them it was good for my soul.
          Even the mom, the one in charge, the one with band-aids, and wipes, and snacks in her purse at all times, couldn’t make this one better.  It hurt, as many good-for-the-soul things do.  Pain is unavoidable in this experience we call being human.  It’s just part of the deal.  It’s our job to give it breathing room to do its thing and move on.
          That’s hard for me; I want to push pain away, to block it out, to hold on tight to my delusion of control.  But when there’s nothing to be done, helplessness is healing.  It didn’t make the hives go away (zinc pills and acupressure did that) but it made my clenched fists open up and I focused on holding my little girl, stroking her face, letting her pain breathe until it moved on.  We were helpless together, just as it should be.