Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Giving of Thanks

On this day in which our nation celebrates thankfulness and all the blessings in our lives, my heart is filled with so much gratitude. And yet, I know that even as I try to express my thanks for all the goodness in my life, words will fail me and cliches will abound. Nevertheless--

I am so grateful for my husband, who is truly my other half. I have loved him for 10 years, which feels like both a lifetime and just the beginning of forever. I am grateful that in our marriage, we have had far more " for betters" and "in health" than "for worse"or "in sickness." I do not know what I would do without my Jeff.

I am grateful for our amazing and beautiful and lovely children. I never knew I could love another human being as much until I had them. I am grateful for the unparalleled joy they bring to our lives, the feeling of purpose and direction they have provided us. I am grateful for what I am able to teach them, and what they are able to teach me. I am grateful that they are so healthy, happy, vibrant, boisterous, creative, kind, compassionate, generous, loving, and downright adorable.

I am grateful for our families, those who live nearby and those far-flung. I am grateful for my parents who live so close by, who support us and our children in more ways than they can possibly know. Our family covers every region of the country, from California to Wisconsin to New England to Virginia to Missouri to Illinois to Michigan to New Mexico. I am grateful for the newest additions, my niece Uli and my nephew Julian, plus my other terrific nephew, Hugo. I am grateful that our children have so many people who love them - grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, cousins, second cousins, and also the dear friends who love our children and who have become like family to us.

I am grateful for my friends, many of whom have children of their own who act as my sounding board, who provide guidance and direction in parenting, either by tacit example or by loud shouts of "don't do that!" or "yes of course!" I am so grateful for my playgroup - we started out as women who got together for our children's sake and have turned into lifelong friends.... (you know, the kind who we'll be with in 15 or 20 years and regale our horrified children with THE most embarrassing kid stories...)

I am grateful for our church community, who supports us even as we struggle and who provide a foundation upon which we can grow our family in faith. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my voice in the choir and my song on the flute, and for the music director and her husband who make it such a pleasure.

I am grateful for Samantha, my homebound student, as well as the students at the Village School. The few hours I spend with them each week are a continuous reminder of my passion for teaching. I know that I will return to the classroom one day, and I will be a finer teacher because of the experiences I have had with them.

I am grateful for our house. In the current financial, economic, and housing crises, I feel most grateful for our home. I feel so fortunate to have a home that is safe, that I love, and that is ours (okay, 6/30ths of it is ours...)

I am grateful for opportunities. I am so grateful for the education Jeff is receiving in preparation for being a nurse, and for my opportunity to pursue a master's degree. I am grateful for the opportunity to dream beyond....

I am so grateful. Even in the daily struggles, the ups and downs of life, the tears of frustration and pain, life is so good. I am keenly aware of the many blessings we enjoy. I am so grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Officer of the Law

I usually wait to group all these "out of the mouths of babes" quotes together, but this one is just too good to wait.

Tonight at dinner, Aidan began talking about a policeman. When he paused, I said, "It's police officer, Aidan, not policeman. I would really prefer you said police officer." He responded, "But I want to call them policeman!" Jeff interjected, "Well, what would you call a woman who was a police officer?"

Aidan paused.... then said, "Police ma'am!"

my Little Big Minds

I have a very small but very wonderful teaching gig at the Village School once a week for one hour. I write philosophy curriculum on a different topic for each month, largely based on the book, Little Big Minds, by Marietta McCarty, and then I get to work with a small group of girls each week, leading the discussions and teaching.

During the month of November, our topic is compassion. Each week, the girls have all had the same heated debate - whether or not compassion is innate or learned. I was not entirely convinced one way or the other myself; I see strong arguments on both sides. My recent experiences with my own children have not necessarily convinced me of one side or the other, but they have convinced me that witnessing compassion in young children is one of the most beautiful things ever.

For awhile at dinnertime, Aidan and Leo argued over what prayer we would say or sing. Aidan often wanted to say his own prayer, while Leo would throw up his hands over his head, his sign for the Superman prayer. What was supposed to be a peaceful blessing before our meal had become a source of stress. So we decided to alternate and let Leo choose one night, Aidan, the next. This worked quite nicely. Then one night, when it was Leo's turn to choose, we asked him what prayer he would like to do. He looked at each of us, then motioned to Aidan. "You want Aidan to choose?" I interpreted. Leo nodded. Aidan simply stared at Leo in amazement, obviously touched that Leo was offering this gift to him. And so, in turn, Aidan chose Leo's favorite prayer. It was a really beautiful moment that I know I will recall with fondness (not to mention proof positive that despite their bickering, they are brothers who really love one another and care for each other in selfless ways.)

Another day, I was feeling particularly frustrated and worn out from the nearly-two year old Leo. Everything had been a battle that day, things like not allowing him to play with heirloom pearls or smack his brother with the broom, daring to clean up the table with a sponge instead of letting him clean it up with the sponge himself, giving him the wrong sippy cup, and so on. To quote an observant grandma I know, Leo is positively relentless. And so after I heaved the millionth dramatic sigh of the day, Aidan looked right at me and said, "Mommy, I am feeling what you are feeling about Leo right now." If that's not compassion straight out of the mouth of a four year old, I don't know what is.

And finally - tomorrow, Aidan is having a party at preschool to celebrate Thanksgiving. He was asked to bring (disposable plastic) tablecloths, and so on Monday, I took him to the local variety store to pick out the ones he wanted. "Look, Aidan, here's one with turkeys all over it!" I exclaimed. "Is this the one you want to get?" Aidan answered vehemently, "NO." "No? Why not?" I asked, shocked. He explained that he wanted plain tablecloths, because he wanted to decorate them all by himself. And while this is not strictly an act of compassion, it certainly is an act of love, of wanting to please other people, and the best part was that it was entirely his idea. It never occurred to me that he could use his art skills to decorate tablecloths. He chose white, because "all the colors will show up well," and he has worked for 3 days straight on making beautiful art. He drew pictures of his classmates, and labeled them with their first initial below each person. He drew leaves, a turkey, a boat, and lots of shapes and abstract designs. He drew his teachers and his class sitting together in a circle. He drew his heart out, his love; he illustrated his thanks.

"From the time we were little children we have all of us, at moments at least,
cherished overwhelming desires to be of use in the great world,
to play a conscious part in its progress."
-Jane Addams

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Unexpected Afternoon

This morning, we were all delighted and surprised to discover a fine dusting of snow on the lawn, the trees, and the rooftops. Aidan was positively giddy with excitement; he had all sorts of theories why it had snowed. He thought maybe it was because we recently had a fire. Or maybe someone actually put on their pajamas inside out by accident, and it snowed. Or that God wanted to surprise us, so God made it snow. He informed us that there were three types of clouds: regular clouds, rain clouds, and snow clouds.

The snow quickly melted, but the chill never left the air. The thermometer never reached 40 degrees, and the overcast sky made me want to curl up with a good book... and a fire. So after Aidan got up from his rest, I built us a fire.

Aidan is impressed that I can do this. Apparently, he thinks it's something only Daddies can do, so of course I wanted to dispell this gender-stereotyping notion immediately. I am not a patient person, but when it comes to building fires, I am the epitome of patience. My Eagle Scout husband, on the other hand, might be chagrined to admit how many fires I've had to "rescue" from his attempts at building the beautiful, warm, full fire that is my specialty.

Leo woke up from his nap just as the fire was comfortably crackling, and we spent the most wonderful afternoon hearthside. The kids brought down their pint-sized chairs and we lounged in front of the fire, reading books and telling "sittin' and thinkin' stories" to each other. We made popcorn and played I Spy. I drank coffee - warm, delicious, pumpkin-spice coffee. Our cheeks turned rosy and pink from the heat, from the sheer pleasure of the laughter, affection, and warmth the afternoon had brought to each of us on this unplanned, unexpected, most cozy and unforgettable afternoon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tree of Thanks

Last year, we began a November tradition, the Tree of Thanks, a tradition I hope will last for many years.
In order to get our tree started this year, Aidan helped me select a small, tree-ish branch to represent a tall, fall tree, and we carefully cut out various shaped leaves from craft foam in the colors of autumn. We "planted" the tree in a small terra cotta pot, held steady by florist's foam, dried lentils, and duct tape. On each leaf, each of us wrote things for which we are grateful, which we then hot glued to the branches. As the month progresses, we will continue to add our gratitudes. On Thanksgiving day, we will ask our guests to add to our tree, and we'll save and date them to read in future years. I'm amazed at how last year, Aidan just barely understood the concept, and this year, he's writing (or drawing) his own leaves, and helping me decipher what Leo might write on his. I love that each of us immediately identifies both the big things - our family and friends - and the small things - saws and rubber hammers (Aidan), cookies (Leo), homebrew and wives who enjoy it (Jeff), and being greeted, on a busy day, with the smell of dinner cooking in the crock pot (Anne). Mostly, I love the conversation our tree brings to our dinner table each night, and the way Aidan thinks about and talks about that tree, often asking me to help him with another leaf or suggesting what we might write later, based on the simple pleasures he finds in life.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

My heart-song

Occasionally, living so close to a college town stops me in my tracks. Even though UVA's setting, while beautiful, is nothing compared to my St. Mary's, I am awash with nostalgia and rememerence from time to time when confronted with the life and times of UVA students....

I took Aidan and Leo to the children's museum this morning, a great way to occupy our time while Jeff is away at clinicals. (Saturdays are hard. We all miss Jeff. It pains me when Aidan can only talk about Sunday as Jeff's only day off....and therefore how excited Aidan is for Sunday to arrive. Soon, this will all change, but the days meant for families can be tough without him.) We had a wonderful time at the museum and eating pizza at Christian's while people-watching. Strolling the downtown mall, we happened upon a group of street performers, an a capella men's group from UVA. Roughly half of the people who were there to enjoy their music were college girls, most of whom were clad in all sorts of (ridiculous) UVA attire, and all of whom were positively swooning, laughing, loving watching "their" boys. Instantly, I was taken back to my own college days, my own experience of watching the St. Mary's men's a capella group, my own memories of swooning over the cute boys, getting the inside jokes that only the students would get, and loving every moment of the event. But then the 20 pounds I had on my back (Leo, in the ergo) and the small hand holding mine brought me back to the moment, made my head spin as I felt caught between two worlds. Simultaneously, I was 16 years in the future, imagining my own two sons among that crowd of young men, beautifully singing, seeing them no longer as children but not yet grown men. Yet my visceral reaction to hearing the voices and seeing the swooning girls took me squarely back to my own college days, and a tiny part of me ached for those days now long gone. I imagine that none of those girls looked at me and thought they'd be in my shoes in just a few short years. I imagine they look at me as just another mom (albeit a young and possibly hip mom) with her two rugrats. They don't know how recent college still seems for me, that I met my now-husband my freshman year, that it seems like it was just yesterday when we attended those a capella concerts together, rode our bikes all over campus together, hung out at the bar together, and now we've got this family, these kids, this whole other life... that I would never trade or change in a million years. I am the happiest I've ever been, yet my desire to have just one more moment as that swooning young college girl was quite strong.

Relaying this story to Jeff later that day, I knew he got it, I knew he knew exactly what I was talking about. And then I realized, I still have the very best of those college days. I still have Jeff. And while he (nor I) was a part of those a capella groups, he is what makes my heart sing still today. He is the never-ending refrian of my contented, happy life. He is the other half of my heart-song. (And yes, that's a reference to Happy Feet, and no, I never would have known that as a college student - only as a young and possibly hip mom.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cookies that itch

We're getting ready to mail off a care package to Jeff's half-sister, who is away at college, and Aidan was very excited about making the cookies to send along. As we were getting our aprons on and our hands washed, he said to me, "Mommy, can we make the cookies from itch?........ I mean from scratch?"

...and it has only taken me a mere 3 1/2 YEARS to figure this out, but I finally had a breakthrough, a eureka moment on Aidan and Milk. Aidan has resisted cow's milk his entire life, and I've tried every suggestion in the book to get him to drink it. I tried soy milk, lactose-free milk, Pediasure, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, vanilla milk, milk through a straw, milk in a special cup, hot milk, cold milk, lukewarm milk, organic milk, whole milk, 2% milk, milk with cookies, milk in hot cocoa, milk in cereal. (In the very beginning, I even mixed milk with breastmilk, since he loved the latter!) Each attempt failed, and I was reluctant to push any of it, remembering how much I disliked milk as a child and now, I am lactose-intolerant. The solution was found by a fluke, and now Aidan drinks milk several times a day..... he drinks 1%. Who knew it could be so simple? Jeff inadvertently bought the 1% and offered Aidan a drink as he always does. Aidan had one sip and said, "Mmmm, this milk is really good. We should thank the cow who made it!" Hooray! He's been a bonda-fide milk drinker ever since.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Virtual Snowstorm...

I voted this morning, right after I dropped Aidan off at preschool. Afterwards, Leo and I made our usual Tuesday morning excursion to the grocery store, where the lines are usually short, the people are usually friendly, and the atmosphere is usually fairly peaceful.

But today, it was a virtual snowstorm at the grocery store. There were ten times as many people there, all looking a little lost, distracted. The checkers seemed kind of on-edge, warily looking at each other. Lots of people looked out of place, shopping on a Tuesday morning for an odd assortment of items. But instead of sizing up one another over the last loaf of bread, roll of toilet paper, or gallon of milk, today people seemed to be sizing up one another over an entirely different commodity: whether or not that fellow shopper had voted, and for whom they had voted.

People seemed to be buying food that seemed to me either celebratory in nature, or some serious comfort food. Bottles of wine and cheese and crackers in one cart; the fixings for massive quantities of chicken pot pie in the other. Some shoppers wore their "I Voted" stickers on the outside of their raincoats, while others proudly bore the t-shirts of their candidates - strictly forbidden in the booths, mind you. The atmosphere was tense, charged, highly anticipatory and anxious. Much like I feel when shopping before the snow comes, I couldn't wait to get out of there -- and also couldn't wait for what was to come, the excitement of the snow, the results of the long-awaited election.

This year is history-making, to be sure. More than likely, Barack Obama will win the election and become our first ever African American President. Less unlikely, yet still historical, Sarah Palin might become the first woman to hold the position of Vice President. And despite Hillary Clinton's loss to Obama in the Democratic nomination, Clinton, too, has forever changed the way in which we view our country's topmost leaders. When I was a child, adults would give an indulgent laugh if a girl were to say that she would be President of the United States. Today, because of Clinton, and perhaps because of Palin as well, I am guessing that most adults don't bat an eye at the idea of their daughter, granddaughter, niece becoming the next President of the U.S.

This election is important. In fact, I believe it is the most important election of my entire life. The candidates are stark opposites, could not be more fundamentally different, yet the record number of people who are going out to vote this minute, who have already voted, make one point very clear: things must change, and change in a major way. We owe it to our children, to our grandchildren, to our grandchildren's children to do far better than we have done. It is hard not to feel as though I am failing my own children right now, because of the utter mess we are in right now as a nation. I called dozens of people last night, reminding them to vote, making sure they had a ride to the polls, providing information, if necessary, on the candidates. I can't stand making calls like that, and yet, for the sake of my children, and for the sake of our nation, I had to do my own part, no matter how small.

When the snowstorm comes tonight and the results of the votes are tallied and translated into the fascinating Electoral College's magical numbers, I expect our nation will have a fresh start, a new beginning, a new day. I expect that the nation I see today - ugly, bleak, ominous, dark - will be blanketed overnight, transformed and made beautiful, hopeful, and new, like the ephemeral beauty after a snowfall.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The trick for the treat

What a fun day we had! But I will confess this right at the start: last year, on Halloween, I fussed at Aidan, big-time, and have felt guilty about it ever since. In fact, "fussing" at him is kind of putting it mildly... on the other hand, I cannot recall what happened, I can only recall my guilt. (Never mind that Aidan most certainly does not remember) So, this year I was bound and determined that I would have extra patience with Aidan, no matter what happened, because I wanted him to have an extra-fun Halloween.......
.... and we did. We decorated and frosted pumpkin cookies in the morning, did some coloring and stamping with Halloween stamps, and talked on and on about the evening's events that consumed every thought in his mind. He told me that (imaginary friend) Boy was dressed up as a pumpkin this year and (his sister) Fishnika was going out as an artichoke. We practiced trick-or-treating with Leo, whose favorite part, at that point in the day, was knocking on the door. He would run away when I opened it!
We trick-or-treated early at the Martells, and Aidan loved seeing Julie in her candy corn costume. Julie is crazy about candy corn, and there's been an ongoing joke that she ate all the candy corn at my parents' house. So several times before Halloween, Julie presented Aidan with a bag of candy corn, and another bag again yesterday. On the drive back to our house, munching on his thousandth candy corn of the season, Aidan observed, "Mrs. Martell gives out a LOT of candy corn!"
...and that's when the mischief began, and I really had to remind myself of my "no fussing" rule. It was time for the Roths and my parents to arrive for dinner, and Aidan could not contain his enthusiasm. He was beginning to drive me crazy because his excitement was bordering on being completely out-of-control. But as the chaos of dinner, costuming, and trick-or-treating began, and intensified with each new part, I realized how much fun everyone was having, and remembered from my own childhood how great it is to have that rare, nearly out-of-control excitement and enthusiasm.
Of course, trick-or-treating was terrific. Leo insisted on carrying his own bag of candy (even when it grew quite heavy), insisted on helping himself to treats at each door, and then politely signed "thank you" to each neighbor before marching his mouse self back down the drive. Midway through, Clancy and I left the kids with the dads and Grandpa and snuck back to our house to join both our moms, who were contentedly handing out candy and drinking wine.
So there's my trick for the treat - letting go and enjoying the craze and the chaos.