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Happy 100 Days: 81

Packs of boys running wild. Moms grooving as they lower the limbo stick. Dads stalking their prey with the video camera. Pizza. Costumes. Gaggles of girls squealing between whispers. Two DJs in Hawaiian shirts, their strobe lights purpling the gym. Half a dozen conga lines crashing into each other. Justin Bieber. The walls thumping Gangam Style. Kids reaching their hands up, up, up, as they bounce ever closer to the sky.
 
Bug’s first school dance!
 

Happy Days, Living in the Moment, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 83

After the small scuffle at the Chicken School about leaving (he hates leaving), the tiff in the car about the lipstick (he threatens to smear it on the ceiling), the cuddle on the couch and the talk about talking about feelings (“Mom, I don’t know how to explain how I feel!”), the dinner I make from scratch in 15 minutes because I had an odd moment of foresight and marinated the chicken and prepped all the sides last night (“This rice is so good!”), the conversation sputters and Bug zones out. I catch him staring in the general direction of the dark kitchen window. We loll at the kitchen table, too tired even to drag ourselves upstairs to bed. I know there is homework in his backpack, but I just can’t bring myself to force it on him tonight. Not at 8:00pm on a Wednesday, and not in kindergarten, for Pete’s sake.
 
I open the Style section to get my fix of Carolyn Hax, but Bug is not having any of it. He reaches for the paper and scoots closer to me.
 
“I want to read with you, Mommy.”
 
“Okay.” I turn to the Kid’s Post at the back, and we read this article about the fact that pets can have preferred paws, just as humans have dominant hands.  As we work through the percentages, I pause. “Do you know what it means that 10% of people are left handed and 90% are right handed?” He does not. “Which hand are you?”
 
He thinks about it then holds up his right.
 
“You and me, we are in that 90%. Here, let’s see if we can figure this out.” I find an envelope and a scrounge up a couple of pencils. I make ten hash marks and then draw a circle, dividing it into ten sections. “Ninety percent means nine out of every ten.” We count the marks together, cutting off the single leftie at the end. I keep checking Bug’s body language for signs of resistance, but he has picked up the pencil and is counting along with me.
 
We talk through coloring one slice of pie for left handed people. We write together “10%” and “90%.” I don’t know if any of this is making sense to him, but his eyes are bright and he is copying every single thing I do, including my little key for which section of the graph represents which hand. We do the same exercise for dogs, which, as the article indicates, are usually about 50% left-pawed and 50% right. I ask him to compare the two circles, and see how much of each one is colored in. “See? Many more dogs use their left than people do. Half of dogs are lefties, but only that little bit, that 10%, for people.”
 
His eyes light up, and he breathes a big “Wow!”
 
“So, the article says something funny about cats. It says that 50% of them are right-pawed, 40% are left-pawed, but 10% have no preference.”
 
We find a fresh envelope and start on the cats. Bug is buzzing with excitement despite the fact that it’s nearing 9:00 and he almost fell asleep in his barbecue sauce. He is bent over the page now, making his hash marks and circles. I explain that he can remove all the zeroes from his percentages and make them into numbers easy to count. He decides that right paws should be dark, left paws should be dots, and no preference should be stripes. He draws a key, makes his ten-slice pie, and begins to color in the sections.
 
“Bug, look what you did! You made pictures to compare dominant sides for a whole population of dogs, cats, or people. This is really cool stuff, and it makes the numbers easier to understand.”
 
Beaming, he writes “cats” on the top of his last drawing and tells me again what it all means. I am dumbfounded. This, from the boy who claims he is too tired even to set forks on the table at dinnertime?
 

 
On nights like these, I am more resolved than ever to keep a TV from setting foot in our someday-home. It is nearly an hour past bedtime at the end of an exhausting day, and my boy would like nothing more than to stay up half the night creating a graphic model of an animal population. Who would be more tickled by this, Edward Tufte or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Perhaps Bug’s own granddaddy, who is at this very moment down in the basement puzzling out one of his mutivariate equations, those Faberge eggs of math, adorned as they are with their many-shaped numerals and their strange Greek baubles.
 
When Bug is finished, he makes a giant check mark on the bottom of the page and draws a big smiley face just like the teacher does. He is delighted enough to grade his own work and give it high marks. I quiet the urge to tell my boy how happy this makes me. That’s the sweet little secret of intrinsic motivation, isn’t it? The itch is his to notice and to scratch. And it doesn’t matter one smidge who is proud of Bug, other than his very own self.
 

Outdoors

Full Spectrum

Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas?
– Paul Gauguin

Every parent compromises. We breathe through our uncertainty, living in the world as it is while occasionally dotting the page with what could be.
 
We put Bug on the rolls for the county School Aged Child Care Program when he was only four years old. A month into kindergarten, and he is still number 72 on the waiting list. They tell us he might get in by second grade.
 
Tee and I spent a good portion of last year exploring every day care option in the area. We found homes crammed with untended children staring, gape-mouthed, at Dora on giant TVs in converted basements. We found KinderCare centers with such an avalanche of scathing online reviews that we had to restrain ourselves from taking up arms to liberate the children inside. The nearby private schools only provide after-hours care to the gilded young who already attend.
 
Word on the street is that the Tai Kwon Do place in a local shopping center is decent enough. It has vans that pick up the kids after school. The teachers give their charges a 30-minute martial arts lesson, a snack, and play time in a small nook at the back. Bug and I visit on several occasions. The kid’s default is to notice the things in front of him, and he has only just begun to long for what is absent. Bug does not even register the adjacent nail salon or the lack of outdoor space. These are my issues, and I buoy my tone up above the churning resistance in my belly. Watching the students practice their kicks and shouts, Bug bounces and begs to join.
 
Not even a postage stamp yard for a jungle gym? Cramped quarters? A Leviathan flat-screen TV in the back of the room where the after-school kids gather? I force myself calm with little mantras. It’s only temporary, it’s only a few hours a day. He’ll be fine (and even if it’s not, what can I do about it? We can’t afford a nanny or a private school, and I have no choice but to work).
 
I only allow myself a single blink at the image of what I want for Bug. The saturated hues are bright enough to sear. It seems so foolish to covet the impossible, but I know exactly what it is: Real. Living, breathing, tactile, sensory. A wide-open green place where he can run and climb. Games and balls and unscheduled time with friends to spread out on a floor to paint or build. I want there to be no electronic babysitters. I want adults within reach that understand child development but also back off and let their charges find their way. I want Bug to get bored and wander through that uncertainty until his hands take up some task that speaks to him. I want him to track the seasons by simply being among the trees. I want what so many parents want: My kid tapping into his unlimited self on the living earth, playing hard with his whole brain and body engaged.
 
What is the use of giving shape to the impossible? We are poor(ish), nothing better exists, and I have to work. So I do not give that Real more than one swipe across the canvas before setting down my brush. This is as good as it gets. My wildly outdoorsy kid will only get to play in the fresh air on weekends. He’ll go to a good kindergarten, and be blessed by the fact that his dad and mom both love camping.
 
Tee and I sign the contract and pay up. Bug would spend 15 hours in a strip mall. Breathe, lady.
 
When mid-August arrives, we put Bug in the Tai Kwon Do day camp for a few days to acclimate him. I pick him up at the end of Day 1, and he tells me about their trip to the park and their short martial arts lesson.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“Watched a movie in the morning. Then we watched another movie when we got back!”
 
Day 2. The field trip is to – yes, you guessed it – the movies.
 
“What else did you do?”
 
“In the morning, we watched a movie. After Tai Kwon Do, we watched another movie!”
 
Three movies in one day? Bug is very, very happy at this turn of events.
 
Day 3. The field trip is to the pool. This time, when I drop Bug off, I walk with him all the way through to the child care nook in the back. The chairs are lined up in rows. The TV is blaring Disney’s Peter Pan. Not a crayon, block, or board game is anywhere in sight. I have never really looked around before, but now I see that all the cabinets are stuffed full of martial arts equipment. The floor has no train set, no bin of legos, no easel or pegboard. The bookshelves house trophies. The tables are bare.
 
This is not a child care facility. It is a storage closet.
 
It is 8:00 in the morning, and I am paying this place for 9 hours of DVDs. I could take him to work with me and provide that kind of childcare myself for free.
 
I leave in a panic. In two weeks, school will start. This is what awaits my son? During the commute, I turn my universe upside-down trying to shake out another choice. Maybe I could quit my job. Maybe Tee and I could get back together and I could work so he could stay home, which is what he wanted anyway. Maybe I could beg my mom to retire. Something? Anything?
 
There is only so much compromising any of us can do. At some point, we hit the core of what we believe about the world, and we either have to change what we believe or we have to change the world. I can put my kid in a strip mall. I can contort my schedule into a pretzel to accommodate easy transitions before school, as I described in this post about the enrollment choice. I can even allow the occasional hour of Nick, Jr. if it takes place at the end of a dynamic day full of real life. I do believe in letting go of some rigid plans for my child.
 
But I also believe in the open sky and in the beautiful play of the body and mind when they are free to roam. I believe far too deeply in calling out the pulse of our humanness, of our mammalness, at every opportunity. We dull too many edges with our entertainments and ill-conceived inventions. We grow numb far too early, and we rebel far too rarely. When my son was born, I made a quiet promise to him and to the world for which he will someday be responsible: My child will have poetry and he will have the earth under his feet, and he will learn to be a steward of this precious place. Even if it means I throw out the safe-enough income, the health benefits, and the someday-home-of-our-own, my child will have the real. I will work part time and live in a rented basement before I let him spend his 42 weeks a year in a place that thinks it’s okay to stultify our beautiful young ones with three #&%*$ movies a day.
 
I arrive at work and start trolling. Internet. Phone. Someone, somewhere. Every place within the zip code of Bug’s school, I check again. Same names of the same desperate ladies in their cramped townhouses with the TVs doing the babysitting. Same big-box profit-hungry franchises. Same elite institutions with no transportation provided to and from the public schools. I expand my search to the next zip code. I have already cried twice, and it is only 9:00am.
 
Then. I stumble upon this place out on the very edge of the district boundary line. The website describes hands-on learning, farm animals, and free play. It is country day school, drawing on Dewey’s experiential roots and the progressive tradition.
 
I call. “Do you have openings for after-school care?”
 
“Before and after-school, yes.”
 
“You are in our elementary school district? Really?”
 
“Yes. The bus picks up here in the morning and drops off here in the afternoon.”
 
“Can I kiss you over the phone?”
 
Giovanni, my knight in shining armor, takes a hiatus from work, picks me up and whisks me over the twisting country road past million-dollar homes and horse barns. We pull up to the address and step out into the sun.
 
Into the Garden of Eden.
 
Five acres of land. A sledding hill. Two playgrounds with hand-hewn wooden play equipment. Chickens, a goat, a pony. Jumbled flagstones wind through an overgrown garden and pumpkins spill from vines behind the fence. Peeling layers of children’s art plaster the walls of an old, rambling house whose rooms are cluttered with books, board games, blocks, balls.
 
Other than a single computer in the office for the Assistant Director to send emails to parents, electronic screens are verboten. The bus ferries kids between this paradise and Bug’s school every morning and afternoon. Even with the addition of the before-school care we need, this utopia is only marginally pricier than the Tai Kwon Do place.
 
Most importantly, there is room for my son. Plenty of room. Acres and acres of open sky. He can run with his arms stretched out and swallow the whole day.
 
Now, when I pick Bug up at what he calls “the chicken school” at 6:15pm, he is pink-cheeked, grubby, and usually perched at the top of a jungle gym lording over the playground. He does not want to leave. I sit at the picnic table and watch him dash up and down, past the rabbit in the hutch, over the relentless weeds, dust flying.
 
For a time, I did not believe in anything but the limits of this new life. I did not allow myself to see in color because the dulling gray of resentment and grief had so blanketed the beginnings. Leaving behind a marriage, a life in the mountains, and dreams of a happily-ever-after can bring on temporary blindness. It hurts so much, that distance between what is and what could be. It hurt enough that I built a prison in my mind and stopped letting in the light. It is safer there, no?
 
Stay there long enough, and the temporary condition becomes permanent.
 
I have spent far too many years – years well before Tee – only letting my trust go so far. This here is enough, I say. This here is as good as it gets. I will learn to live with it. This time around, desperation forced my hand. I hit the core of what I believe about the world and teetered on edge of trading my faith for a release from the duty to serve that calling. A small existence may seem a safer bet than facing the possibility of change, but it’s an awfully expensive deal. A compromise of that magnitude is pure capitulation. Thank goodness the pulse of life is stronger than my cowardice.
 
This gift of a perfect way-station for my son arrived at the moment I refused to settle any longer for just good enough. I want to hold onto this small truth: it is an act of courage to believe there is more to this journey than surviving on scraps. It is never too late to voice desire for what can be, to dip the brush into the richest colors, and to use the whole spectrum to craft a life.
 
No more picturing toil and limits. No more hard, dark images of poverty. I shake off the hair shirt and surrender the title of martyr. Artist is much more to my liking. I pick up the brush. I paint the world abundant, and so my son and I are rich beyond measure.
 

Adventure, Children

I Hear that Train A-Comin’

When I hear that whistle blowin’
I hang my head and cry.

-Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Bug has been in the Froggy class since January 2011. Same songs, same routine, even some of the same classmates. The wide-windowed preschool room with its labeled cubbies and bins of blocks has been a security blanket during a time of adjustment for his family. On Tuesday morning, all of that changes. Bug will walk into before-and-after-school care in a whole new place with kids he has not met yet. He will board a bus he has never ridden and start kindergarten with a teacher he has only seen at half glance from a face buried in my side.
 
I took the day off work last week to accompany my little boy on a final visit to both schools. He lingered in the doorway of each new classroom, hanging back from the buzz of activity. He clung to my arm and pressed his body into mine as if trying to crawl back inside.
 
That safe place is no longer big enough for him.
 
“Mommy,” Bug said to me on the way home. “I think I’ll stay in the Froggies for one more year.”
 
He is already going to be one of the oldest kids in his kindergarten class, with a birthday falling just five days after the county cut-off. He is a lumbering giant, tall and lean and towering over his peers as he roars around the playground. There is no “one more year.” This is happening. The train has left the station.
 
I tell him I am going to help him through it and that it is a big change but new friends and adventures are waiting for him. I tell him that his daddy and I aren’t going anywhere. That his doggy and his grandparents will still be waiting for him every night.
 
All of this telling is just white noise. His experience will be his own, and it will look entirely different than anything I try to craft. I understand that reassurance does not live in the picture I try to paint of how this will unfold. Rather, it is simply in my presence. If I can offer any comfort, it is in staying calm and standing loose when he turns back towards me to find his home base. It is in the sound of my voice, chattering out its quiet encouragement. It is in the three books at bedtime, the three songs, the way we walk the dog every single day whether we feel like it or not.
 
One of the greatest gifts of childhoods is one we most lament when we are young: we don’t have any say over our lives. I remember being little and hating the sense of powerlessness over my circumstances. When we are small, so many of us want to be grown up so we can decide for ourselves what to do or not do.
 
Alas, having a say is overrated. While Bug has no freedom to fight the change coming next week, he also has no obligation to initiate change of any sort. His freedom, then, is in being released from the struggle of having to make the tough decisions. The new beginning is here. My little boy is already packed up. The Powers that Be have bustled him aboard. The whistle blows, and off it chugs.
 
For the lucky ones, being young means not having to check the timetables or even agonize over taking the trip in the first place.
 
Of course, Bug is anything but powerless. He has a great deal of say in how this journey goes. Does he adapt to the rhythm of it, or does he fight momentum? Does he find a new set of travel companions in the dining car, or does he sit in a corner booth, yearning for what was left behind? In some ways, the capacity to determine the quality of an experience is more powerful than any illusion of authority. After all, we each move along a path only fractionally of our own making. Perhaps the only real influence we have over any of it is how we choose to behave at exactly the point where we find ourselves now.
 
In any event, Bug will be grown up soon enough. Give it another blink or three, and he will be the kind of free so many of us are: free to grow or stagnate, free to take risks or stay safe, free to lift his gaze or put on blinders. He will make choices that will have long-term consequences, and I will be unable to protect him from harm. Also, he will do breathtaking things I could not have imagined. Like all of us, he will occasionally hunker down in his personal version of the Froggies long after he should have hefted his knapsack and struck out for something more his size. Like all of us, he will occasionally board the wrong train altogether.
 
So, I tell Bug that he is starting kindergarten next week, it is happening, and he will find his way. My firm tone belies a roiling beneath. Down under my words, I hear another voice whispering. It asks a question for my ears alone:
 
If no one is here to tell me the next step is inevitable and that I have no choice in the matter, how do I determine it is time? If I can choose to stay here, buried in the warm folds of my own security blanket, how do I will myself to let go?
 
I can certainly allow myself to continue moving along familiar pathways. Looking and looking for a way to let myself off the hook, I retreat from the most frightening choice. I cross my arms, plant my feet, and say, “I think I’ll stay in Froggies for one more year.”
 
It is easy to find permission to persist in doing what I have always done. The problem is that the room does not have chairs big enough for me and the bins of blocks no longer challenge me. Outside those wide windows, something is coming my way. Even with my fingers stuffed in my ears, I can’t block the sound of that whistle blowing.
 

If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over a little,
Farther down the line

 
Maybe it’s time to decide. If my little Bug at a mere five years old can step on board, perhaps his mommy is brave and strong enough to do the same.
 

Change, Choices, Co-Parenting

Stuck Landing

We will need to limber up for the advanced scheduling contortions set to begin on September 4th. Kindergarten means our little family-ish arrangement has to bid goodbye to the preschool on the campus of Tee’s university. Aligned calendars and an easy childcare commute have been blessings in a rather tumultuous chapter, and now we brace ourselves for a school-year timeline designed for long extinct agrarian families. Bring on the yellow buses, packed lunches, and after-school children’s warehouses.

Continue reading “Stuck Landing”