Giovanni and I keep our cameras handy. We want to capture the cool Allegany waters and the dripping tamarack boughs. He turns the lens on me. I cringe. In those frozen moments, I can see how tired my eyes looked. How stained my shirt, how disheveled the campsite, how absent my son. Giovanni laughs and just shakes his head. “You’re beautiful, baby.” He glances at the photo in the camera then grins up me. “That is a good looking woman.”
In the archive of forever ago live photographs of the first weeks Bug was home, nursing at my breast. Wedding photos. Christmas pictures with Tee and Bug and me in the Colorado forest, cutting our own scraggly pine. Tired eyes there, too, and bright and distant and everything in between.
I ask Giovanni to keep taking photos. I know better than to let vanity scrub history of its texture. Still, it is hard to look at the images of this north country camping trip without feeling a bit of remorse. Where is the open face of a girl with no bitter seed tucked inside her cheek?

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you’re composing a picture – the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. – Lee Frost

Begin again. Turn the head. Unhitch, release the remains of the gift freely given but poorly maintained. Gone, the days playing in the mountain creek with the tiny minnows flitting past my little boy’s ankles. Gone, too, the tulips curled deep in their bulbs beneath December frost along the hand-made fence. Gone is everything before.
Giovanni and I walk on.
The residue of a recent conversation with Tee still dusts my skin. We were chatting about their father-son adventures: fishing trips, air show excursions, visiting the tall ships in the Baltimore harbor. Tee is a fun daddy. “I can’t give him the childhood I had,” Tee explained. “So I have to make the best of what is here.” Resignation. A touch of martyrdom. I could almost hear the quiet, cresting cheers at Tee’s strength. The truth is, I listen for them myself when I speak of settling for less in order to provide stability for my son. This is the attitude of survivors.
Is that what we are doing? Surviving? If we start with the premise that we are handicapped, then our fortitude is certainly a strength. I hear the father of my son hint at disadvantage, and I think (quietly, because I am learning to hold my tongue), This pulsing place? The nation’s capital? The diversity of experience and background in every neighborhood? The colleges and museums and historic battlefields? The curry and pho? The political stage? The assembled masses? All of this is a shortage?
Bug’s childhood is not deficient. He is missing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before Bug believes he lacks the golden ticket if we believe he does. The kid is sharp, but it does not take a sixth sense to sniff out the secret Tee and I both carry: we have fallen short. We have not provided our boy with what he should rightfully have. The odor of failure clings to us both. We do not believe we have done enough, that we give him enough. Something is “supposed” to be better, or more, or different.
In another context, Giovanni once suggested that a shift away from wanting and towards appreciating might help us see each other a little better. When we pause to notice the composition of the object before zeroing in on its flaws, something good has room to grow.
Where I aim my gaze determines more than a single point of view. Bug will learn to orient his attention by watching the grownups in his life. Do I want to apprentice my son to a taxonomist of shortcomings? It seems a wiser course to teach him to identify the call of a whip-poor-will from its perch on a cedar’s low shoulder.

. . . by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it’s possible to create successful compositions every time. – Lee Frost

In the snapshot of Bug’s life today, here is what I choose to see:

  • Two homes.
  • A mom and a dad.
  • A lop-eared dog.
  • Woods near his house with pricker bushes and a creek and all kinds of ways to get lost.
  • Public parks, public libraries, and some of the best public schools in the country.
  • Books splitting the frames of shelves in his rooms.
  • Parents who read to him every night.
  • Road trips and campfires.
  • Healthy food in abundance.
  • Quiet time.
  • Neighbor kids who ride bikes up and down the cul-de-sac.
  • Three sets of grandparents who make room for him.
  • A cozy bed.
  • Songs in his repertoire.
  • Questions galore.
  • A floor onto which he can pour his tired body when he wants the world to stop.
  • Dreams about pirate ships.
  • Climber’s legs.
  • Dancer’s feet.
  • Paper and markers, glitter and glue.
  • Wonder.
  • Grit.
  • Anger and sadness and sweet, tender kisses.
  • One bad joke about a duck.

Tee says he cannot give Bug the childhood he had. He is more right than he knows. A childhood is not ours to give. In fact, Bug does not have a “childhood” at all. He has a life. His own. This very one.
As long as I am living with wishes that things could be more X and less Y, and as long as I carry the burden of loss, then I model for my child the fine art of holding off on joy until real happiness comes along.
Begin again. Turn the head.
All we need is right here.
Circumstances will change, of course. We will seek new doors down corridors we have not yet explored due to blindness, fear, or simple chance. But a belief in adaptation and expansion does not require us to disparage the now. We can love possibility while also wrapping our arms around this very whole moment, draw it close to our hearts, and shiver in awe at the perfect fit. So complete, this day, this configuration of things, this this.

The fact is you’ll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you’ll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. – Lee Frost

As Giovanni and I walk the trail through the northern woods, I make a promise out loud. When I see a photo, I will find something in it to like. It is a simple act. The practice, I have learned, has a way of revealing the path. In every snapshot, seek something that opens the eyes. Appreciate the image as evidence of riches. Find the pulse. Land the gaze there and call forth the living yes.

Lee Frost Photography. http://www.leefrost.co.uk/default.asp


Learn your Stripes

When the foal is born, his mama positions herself between the other zebras and him so she can imprint him with her stripes. Pressing her unique fingerprint into his awareness is a necessary precaution fir those moments when a lion leaps from the grass. During the ensuing melee, the baby can zero in on the correct adult.
I wonder, though, if she is also memorizing him. It is hard to tell from pure observation if mares also imprint during those first moments. Mama zebras do not say “What beautiful stripes!” You do not see them clapping their hooves together and crowing, “You look so nice with that design. Awesome!”  They are more dignified in the scrutiny of their young. The pattern is itself. Her foal, himself. Zebras do not waste their time taking the measure of the being. Seeing is the only act that matters.
Maybe it is time to bring a little Serengeti to our house.
Bug pads into my room on weekends just after sunrise, singing, “Good moaning, Mommy!” In his rumpled, happy daze, he climbs between the sheets with me. We read through his schoolwork from the week. I unfold a page covered in dots. “Tell me about this,” I say.
“It’s a marauders map. See? There is the Gryffindor common room, here are my footsteps, and Zee’s are there. . . “
“Oh. You drew footsteps.”
“Yep. And rain. Here, this is lightning,” he points.
Next is a picture of bunnies with an arithmetic problem in thick scrawl. I read it. “Two plus eight equals. . . ?”
“Ten. See? And there are two bunnies there. And that’s the Easter Bunny’s house.”
“I see dots inside.”
“Those are all his Easter eggs.”
We go through like this, a dozen papers in all. I am learning to quiet the impulse to declare the things “great” or “cool” or “well done.” I simply ask, “What is this?” I describe what I see, or ask Bug to explain to me what he sees.
Part of the game change around here is to begin mirroring my kid without judgment. This involves stilling the urge to assess his actions in any way, either positively or negatively. No more tepid, knee-jerk praise. “Good job” has overstayed its welcome. I send it packing, along with “awesome” and “nice work.” My preferences and my assessments need not be factors in my son’s pursuits. What matters first is what is happening, and second, the thing that follows. My job now is to put names to these occurrences and help the kiddo link chains of events. He and I can work through correlation and causation. As I help him see and reflect, I aim to let go of judgment’s illusion of control.
This approach to parenting may be so cock-eyed that it will backfire on me. Without giving my son a pat on the back for appropriate behavior, how will he be able to navigate the complicated choices before him? I do not have a clear answer to this. All I have is a sense that it is time for me to right the balance. My capacity to be critical and demanding is so well-honed, I tend to cut off parts of people who venture too close. Bug is never going to suffer as a result of my lazy discipline. The standards I lug around are exacting enough, thank you very much. It is time for Bug to tend to the cultivation of his own.
Let’s be honest. Bestowing and withholding praise are both well-meaning (if ill-conceived) attempts to shape my son to believe what I believe and like what I like. As most kids do, he is apt to learn both to crave my approval and recoil from it. Both are dangerous motivators. Do I really want Bug to be at the mercy of my capricious tastes and mercurial moods? Surely, I do not want to set my son up to swing between chasing down his parents’ admiration and rebelling against it. I want to protect him from, not make him susceptible to, peer pressure, charm, the controlling impulses of the more self-assured, and abuse. I am all too familiar with the tendency of approval -seeking children to grow into acceptance-hungry adults, clutching at wisps of praise as insubstantial as sugar floss in a sweaty grip.
Self-reliance and self-awareness are muscles requiring a steady buildup over time. My kid has to decide for himself how he will read the landscape. As he grows more independent and spends more time away from the brood, he needs the wherewithal to calibrate his own moral compass. Have I taught him to see clearly? Does he know how to assess his own developing stripes, to read his own moods and feelings, to sense in his own gut what is right and wrong?
Here comes the zebra, wandering back into the frame. She pauses to graze. One eye is on the distant field, keeping that tiny foal in her sites.
Her approach is worth a shot. I step back. I gaze at my offspring gazing back at me. He is both of me and separate from me. I release him to the grasses, surrender my grip, and just pay attention.
-“You put your shirt on by yourself.”
-“You threw a fork and it hurt mommy. I shouted. Now your body is curled up. Your face looks like this.”
-“You shared your grapes with that little girl, and she is playing with you.”
I only need to confirm what is already occurring, and try to help Bug’s developing brain consider his state of being. I can help him orient towards his own body and mind, the impact his actions are having, and the (possible) cause and effect of each choice. I can do all of this without pinning on the gold medal. By simply mirroring my son, rewards intrinsic to his behaviors resolve into view.
I believe in my child. I am actually learning to trust him. This is our journey together. As I resist the urge to judge, I allow Bug to watch and learn from my actions, speak his own perceptions, and draw his own conclusions. I also allow him to really see me, and to notice me noticing him.
When someone bears witness to our story, it lives more fully than it ever could when it is swimming inside of us. Because of this, the gift of attention confers both energy and serenity. I want Bug to be seen and known, exactly as he is in this moment. I want my son to hear his experience called back to him across the wide open spaces. I want him to see my pattern and know I am here, always, to help him orient himself. We hold each other, yes. Also, we are free to follow the unique angle of the wind to the source that calls us.


Nowhere Near Kansas

Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction (‘I don’t care what you say, you can’t make me!’), it’s always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child ‘mind.’  – Laura Markham, Aha Parenting

When the brain is no longer in survival mode, it has the opportunity to come up out of the storm cellar and assess the damage. A weekend of nourishing activities and a few days of rest have calmed the skies. Climbing up into daylight, I can see the havoc this two-year typhoon has wrought on Bug’s and my relationship. It is hard to believe the thing is still structurally sound. It is even harder to face my own role in wrecking the place during my mad dash to get us to safety. Survival-mode parenting may keep the roof from blowing off, but it does not do much to help a kid learn to learn how to build anything solid.
This is not just guilt talking. A raw empathy for Bug also surges through me when I survey the scene. I want to be able to go back to the beginning and throw myself around him. He is too little to face so many of the events unfolding around him, and I wish I could protect him not only from the storm but from my own botched reaction to it. Alas, no one has yet perfected a time machine. Bug and I will have to pull what we can from the wreckage and start rebuilding right here.
As an earlier post described, my kid is struggling hard to manage life in two homes. Transition times yield the most resistance, but explosions occur at bedtime, in the morning, and during any activity involving additional people. Strong feelings seem to flood Bug all in a rush, and he acts before he has a chance to find his footing.  It is normal to look for a causal relationship between a child’s behavior problems and a single, identifiable event. The conventional approach is to wonder if his new teacher, the long commutes, a split home or a food allergy might be to blame. In my gut, I know better. I know that displacing my child’s distress onto circumstances beyond us has been a way for me to manage my own sense of being overwhelmed.
I also know better because I was a child once. The difficult situations around me were never the real challenge. The challenge was in not knowing how to make sense of my feelings about difficult situations. We all have painful childhood memories; for me, the ones with deepest imprint have nothing to do with the precipitating event and everything to do with fearing the fallout from my responses. Somehow, I was supposed to get my act together, yet I had no idea how to go about doing this. A sense of indistinct danger hung over my tangled feelings. The memory of distress is so vivid that even as I write about it from the safe distance of three decades, my heart begins to gallop.
A kid’s emotional vocabulary is rudimentary at best. I am guessing my childhood home was not the only one unacquainted with the “I statement.”  I remember how very difficult it was to know how to behave when I was feeling sad, scared, angry, or disappointed. This is not an indictment on my parents or any family culture. The language of loving guidance is a foreign tongue to most of us. Feelings are strange and slippery things, and they can seem even more perilous when we attempt to face them. Even as an adult, it is tough to gain composure, think clearly, speak rationally, and act well when the pressure is on. Who wouldn’t duck back down into the cellar and pull the hatch closed?
When I am feeling anxious or upset, I want someone to remind me that I am safe. That I am loved. That the world does not hinge on this one decision, that it is okay to take my time to sort it out, and that I have help if I need it. When I do not have these things, I become more prone to burst. Why would things be any different for Bug? In Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey suggests,

When your children are having a hard time obeying you, they need to believe that you have faith in them. They need to sense that you have confidence in them before they can develop confidence in themselves.

Yet, when my son is acting with aggression, what do I do? Increase the pressure by threatening “consequences.” If he does not put his toys away and put on his jammies now,he will lose books at bedtime. If he does not stop saying “shut up,” he will go straight into time out. I take away his ability to gain confidence in his own decision-making, and he loses trust both in himself and in me.
I understand the argument that children need some form of punishment in order to learn to behave appropriately. I understand it, and I do not agree with it. I have been attempting that approach for months because my own stressed brain has not been able to come up with anything better. However, the more I attempt to will Bug into compliance, the wider the rift between us grows. Sure, he may hop to it if I threaten to pour the hot cocoa down the drain, but he only grows more tightly coiled as the day rolls on. Against this survival parenting, my heart and mind have been gently, insistently reminding me that my own intense and stressful responses to my son are exacerbating his defiant behavior. My child has been begging for help in learning how to face a tough situation. Because I have been so very tired, I have largely left him to twist in the wind.
What is the alternative? As I squint into the new daylight, this is about as much as I can discern: I need to mend what is torn between Bug and me. Laura Markham suggests that “the most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.” This is what my heart tells me to do. It is also what practice has been reinforcing. No matter how aggressive Bug’s behavior, I remind him that I love him and that I am on his team. “It seems like you are having some big feelings, buddy.  Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.” I try not to snap. I know what it’s like to have someone get angry at me when I do something I know is wrong. It only makes me feel more hopeless. Suggesting my kid has to “get it together” before he is allowed to be in my company or in the company of others sends the message that only his proper, polished-up self is invited to the party.  I want to reverse course, and provide affection and support to the messy, work-in-progress my son truly is, as all of us truly are.
I am practicing staying with him. I am learning to let him cry or blow up a little or say what he needs to say. Afterwards, we can talk it out. Maybe we will have a do-over or experiment with something altogether new. I try to remember to use just one scale to measure an approach before I take it: does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug? I do not always get it right, but as I breathe through my own confusion, I remember that the thing my son needs more than anything right now is me, loving him.
Now that I have clocked a few good nights’ sleep and opened up the cellar door, I can see the debris strewn around. The gift of this perspective is that the sun shines under the broken places and reveals treasures I never knew existed. Where structures once stood, rich soil, long fallow, offers itself up to us. Here and now, my son and me. We begin.
Bailey, Becky. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.