Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eating my Words

June 30?  How did that happen??  SO much catching up to do:

We've enjoyed lots of adventures these past two weeks.  I'm glad, though, because July is going to be a big month, full of off-kilter routines and big changes amongst the grown-ups.  More on that to come.  

If there's one thing in parenting I've learned, it is this:  any statement you make, where you swear up and down that it will "never" happen, that you'll never LET it happen - be prepared to eat those words.  After several summers of witnessing overtired parents gather in the bug-infested lawn in the blazing hot sun outside the crowded pool deck counting down the the minutes until the swim meet was finally over, I swore up and down that I'd never let my children join swim team, and that those parents were downright crazy.

And then they joined - Aidan and Leo joined the swim team.  Go Sharks!

And I discovered that I love it.  I actually love it, like Mikey and his bowl of Life cereal.  I love the evening practices that wear the kids out to exhaustion, giving them a half-bath in the salt water pool and sufficiently preparing them for deep slumber each night.  I love the attention that Pax enjoys when older brothers are occupied, giving him Mom's undivided attention.  I love the social aspect of the practices and the swim meets - for both my kids and for us Moms and Dads, too.  I love knowing that a bad day will likely end well, with swim practice.  I love the swim meets, the village we've built, where moms and dads haul unfathomable amounts of stuff to a central location where we feast on salads and sandwiches and s'more bars and keep an eye on the village children who race from one end of the lawn to another, drawing on each other with Sharpies and squirting each other with spray bottles full of chilly water.

Is Aidan or Leo destined to be the next Michael Phelps?  Hell no.  And I'm fine with that.  (In fact, I'm quite relieved.  Just yesterday, I swore to myself, up and down, that my kids would NEVER do year-round swimming.....)

But what I really admire is how hard they both work, how excited they are and how committed they are to swimming.  Aidan is a quick learner, diving off the blocks at his very first swim meet and practicing his strokes even on days we go to the pool "for fun only."  Each meet, his times improve, and swimming has provided an excellent way for him to cultivate his competitive streak in a healthy way.  The focus is on your own personal best time, beating yourself each race, not worrying so much about what other kids are doing or how fast they are going.  I love this about swimming: being your personal best.

And Leo - Leo experienced a truly epic moment during his first backstroke in his first meet.  We refer to it as Leo's First Backstroke: Or The Little Engine That Could.  At the start of the race, all was fine in the lap lanes.

But quite quickly, the other under-6 racers backstroked themselves far beyond my Leo.  Determined as ever, he kept going.  Coaches from the other team encouraged him, demonstrating how to use both arms to reach behind him.  His own coaches yelled encouraging words from the sidelines.  The other racers finished, and Leo was just 1/3 of the way down the lane.  Patiently, we all urged him on.  He stopped frequently, holding on to the lap lanes but never turning his front toward the finish, always maintaining a half backstroke pose.

Halfway down the lane, the entire crowd around the pool began to cheer for him.  "GO LEO GO!"  we shouted.  "GO LEO GO!!"  I crouched at the pool side, cupping my hands around my mouth in the hopes he would hear my singular voice.  I fought back tears: wanting to help him; knowing how hard he was trying; deeply moved by the encouragement and the enthusiasm of bystanders.

At times, it was very scary. There were moments when panic overtook his face, and I was just seconds from plunging into the water to save my baby.  Nervously, I said to one of my favorite dad friends, "Seth, that lifeguard is really hovering near the edge."  He replied in a voice that would calm passengers on the Titanic, "It's her job to do that.  She's supposed to be there."  We cheered louder and louder, and as Leo made his eventual approach, the coaches urged him to keep going, to touch the wall, to stay on his back!

And he did.  He swam the whole damn thing, on his back.  All 3 minutes and 26 seconds of it - he did it.  He emerged, exhausted and cold and yet with a look of sheer determination still clearly evident on his face, that determination that I adore about him.

Leo Gabe:  The Little Engine That Could.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Camp Counselor

Sitting in the Cool Carter Clubhouse this morning,
I had the sudden realization how much my life these days feels like my summers spent as a camp counselor:

My days are filled to overflowing with children whose energy knows no bounds (except when it's time for dinner prep) and constantly look to me for suggestions, guidance, direction (except when they don't like what I'm suggesting, guiding, and directing them to do.)

It's up to me to make sure these hellions are sufficiently bathed, dressed to their mothers' approval, lathered in sunscreen, covered in bug spray, and otherwise ready to face the day.  I'm also charged with preparing their every meal, making sure that they eat well, and urging them to drink water, drink water, and drink more water.

If I feel annoyed, or grumpy, or fed up, or just plain worn out tired, that's simply too bad.  I'm charged with singing a jolly good tune - even through tightly clenched teeth.  (When in doubt, Christmas tunes have the effect of catching campers off guard, occasionally making them forget just what they're squabbling about, this time.  Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in July?  Why not?  They know all the words, and it buys you two minutes to unclench your jaw.)

Creepy spiders?  Scary boom-boom thunderstorms?  Bee stings?  Antagonizing cabinmates?  Potty runs in the middle of the night?  It's all on me, baby.

And then I realized some stark differences, too.

I receive no wages, however meager, for the hard work I do.

There is no contract I've signed that GUARANTEES ME TWO CHILD-FREE HOURS EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

I cannot simply usher my children into a cafeteria where hot food awaits us, during those times I'm not actually required to cook for them.  Additionally, they can see the pantry from where they sit, so I can't get away with claiming that there is nothing else they may eat except what is on their plate.

My co-counselor works long hours.  And sleeps while I am awake.  And works while I am asleep.

My co-counselor is equally afraid of creepy spiders as my "campers," doesn't wake during thunderstorms or for children who have to potty, and treats bee stings more like a fascinating science experiment in skin reaction and less like an exercise in distraction and downplay for the hysterical boy.

Occasionally, when I forget that I'm not allowed to be grouchy, annoyed, fed up, pissed off, and JUST SO OVER IT, I have no "respite counselor" who cheerfully swoops in to relieve me, giving me a tight hug and a big grin before sending me on my way to a two hour break.  Instead, all eyes are upon the mom with the screeching, thrashing, flailing, screaming, red-faced two year old who was told, gently and with much advance warning, that it was time to leave the pool.

Those summers I spent as a counselor, when my exhausted campers drifted off to sleep listening to the symphony of crickets surrounding our hogan, I lay in bed, spent and weary, yet fighting sleep.  I'd count the cricket chirps and wait for my mind to ease, knowing that in the morning, I'd have to rise and do it all over again. 

In the calm of evening, of course, the other stark differences come through. 

The differences come in creating a sanctuary in our very own backyard, which invites a calm and a peace not known before, where we simply sit, together.  Where we simply hang out, (how often do you see three boys, ages 2, 5 and 8, simply hang out?) talk about ferns and spiderwebs and big clouds and blues skies, where we begin the day.

Where we pore over a new camping book, reminding each other to dig out the ropes to try new kind of knots, trying out new camp songs, then singing old favorites - "Little Cabin in the Woods"  and "John Jacob Jingelheimer Schmidt."

Where we light a single tea light, drop it into a mason jar, and pretend it is a bonfire.

Where we talk about Life Issues like navigating through changing friendship, and kids who are very sick, and why the cat keeps attacking the butterflies.  And why she then pukes it up on the porch.

Where we leave the tranquility of our clubhouse for the adventure of exploring our neighborhood, on bikes.  How I revel in the freedom this affords to each of us, the pleasure we share in this conquest of wheels and pavement and exploration.  Where my sweet companion, riding behind me in his little seat, points and grunts in happy excitement when he spots a squirrel, a yapping dog, a peliated woodpecker perched on a tree branch.  Where I watch, in admiration, as my two older boys push themselves with small legs up big hills, determined to be Big Enough.

Where I discover anew all the things I loved best about being a camp counselor with the children I love best in the whole world. 

Where they drop into bed, weary and spent.  Where I lie on my own pillow, knowing I'll get up in the morning and do it all over again.

And feeling the excitement, the anticipation, for morning to arrive.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rock Me Gently

Abruptly, it was decided that the time had come for Aidan to have his own room again, and for Pax to move in with Leo.

Which means the time has come to paint over the nursery.

 Which is much easier said than done.

For eight years and three months, I've sat in the light blue cushioned rocker -  and rocked.  Rocking.... reflecting, remembering, reconsidering, regretting, revisiting, renewing.

I rocked and read books in the month before Aidan's birth, anxiously awaiting his arrival. Killing time, dreaming, not fully believing I'd hold a baby in my arms, rock in that same chair with him.

Newly born, I rocked him to sleep. Night after night, nap after nap. Even though the books said not to, I did it. I felt mildly guilty, but I did it anyway. I nursed him in that chair, preferring its comfort and cushion over any other seat in the house. That chair, that nursery, became my escape.

I found out I was pregnant with another baby, and I loved rocking both of them to sleep. I gazed at the walls, still loving the colors we'd chosen, marveling over the time I spent agonizing over the theme, finding a corresponding plaid paper to complement the border. I was adamant over a non-gendered room. In retrospect, knowing I would give birth to three gorgeous boys, I'd choose the exact same thing again. I cannot imagine not watching every single boy fall in love with the hippo at eye level on the changing table......

I rocked our baby in my belly while I rocked our baby in my arms. I dreamed. I dreamed of a new room for Aidan, of him becoming a big brother. I wondered if we'd change the top color of the room, if it were a girl. I decided, no way. The yellow was too cheery. Nothing would look better.

And then I miscarried. And I rocked my sorrow. I rocked and rocked, tears streaming down my face, not yet ready to put my long-ago sleeping boy into his bed. I rocked until my sorrow dissolved into a form of acceptance, until my tired arms could no longer hold my lovely, living, breathing, beautifully asleep boy.

I rocked my hope. I rocked my anger, my frustration, my sadness. I rocked my joy, my delight, my happiness in the discoveries of each day, discoveries only the perspective of a young toddler can bring.

I rocked my joy. I rocked and rocked, knowing that this room was no longer fit for Aidan, that a new baby would fill the space. In December, just weeks before he was born, his crib was filled to overflowing with wrapped gifts. How clever I was, how resourceful - fill the crib with Christmas gifts, tempt the eyes of those who were to receive, yet keep them out of arm's reach. I loved that the gifts filled the spot that our true gift would soon fill - the gift of Leo Gabriel, named after the beloved grandfather and the angel who brought such good news to Mary. He was our good news.

I rocked through the hard days of transitioning to two babes. We made small changes to that room, wanting Leo to feel that it was own, yet knowing it was perfect for every baby. We hung the belly cast we'd made when I was still pregnant with Leo, framed photos of his beautifully sleeping self. We introduced him to the animals on the walls; the Lion's call was the first animal sound he learned.

Years later, I rocked and dreamed again. I was excited for Aidan and Leo, knowing they'd share a room together, to make room for another. I clung to the dream of our September baby, knowing he would be our last. I reveled in enjoying every final moment in that nursery: bringing him home; snuggling him in his crib; changing him on the 34 year old dresser, repainted and refinished; introducing him to hippo, twice torn, twice replaced.

I've read hundreds of books, thousands of pages sitting in that chair, ranging from "What to Expect When You're Expecting" to "Baby Days: Games to play with Newborns" to "Goodnight Moon" and "The Going to Bed Book" and "I Love You Forever" and "Owl Babies" and "The Kissing Hand...."

This room has borne witness to my greatest joys, my greatest sorrow, my deepest fears, my highest hopes and dreams. How impossibly attached I have become to butter yellow walls, pastel Malawi safari animals, and blue plaid paper. I never thought this nursery would bring so much solace and peace to my heart; in the waning days of being "nursery," I drank it in the gulps of a parched and dehydrated soul.

Long after Pax surrendered in slumber, I cradled him and rocked him and gazed at the ever-darkening room. I reflect on the day, remembering the joys and regretting the harsh words spoken, the impatient tap of the foot, the misunderstanding. I sink deeply, rehearsing how tomorrow will be different, planning my improvement.  I remind myself that I am doing the best I can do, and that I will do the same again tomorrow.  I forgive myself for my failings.  

I rock, I hum, I kiss him on his delicate, full lips. I rock him longer still.

Thousands of nights, tens of thousands of naps, I've rocked these babes to their peace-filled slumber.

Those books were wrong, I decide. Never have I known greater peace and contentment as rocking my children to sleep, night after night, in a room I never imagined would hold such memories.

I read recently that in order to live more fully and in the fullness of love and grace, we should detach ourselves from our attachments. I suppose, them, that I must detach myself from this room, this space, this place that has borne witness to the highest highs and the lowest lows of my existence. I am moving aside, making way for the occupant who will fill it, make it his, occupy it, love it, and miss it when we move to a bigger home...

As for the rocker?  It has found new space.  Nestled cozily into the corner of the family's room, arm's length away from dozens of beloved books, my children pile into my lap to hear stories, to snuggle, to rock.  Late at night, when the house is sleeping, I find myself in that chair: to think, to reflect, to dream.  To rock. And rock. And rock some more.