Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Parents, You May Leave Now"

I'll never forget something my friend Melinda told me when her daughters were elementary-aged. She admitted that while she had never seen herself as having a control issue, she in fact did. And it only showed up as her little ladies began having minds of their own. When you lose the ability to ensure that each perfectly matched hair bow is tied just so, with shoes appropriate for the occasion, and cute, polite answers you've painstakingly practiced with your angels come rolling off their tongues each time an adult questions them, you panic a little bit. Or a whole lot. It just seems wrong, that all of a sudden you can't dictate each decision, each move, each action. After all, you've been given the right to be solely in charge of these beings you've birthed and raised, right?

Wrong. I realized the depth of my own control issue a few days ago. 

We got up at the break of dawn to make sure we were on time to Emma's first high school audition. For those of you who don't live in NYC, normal places as my children would say, I'll try to briefly explain. Manhattan doesn't come with zoned public high schools. You don't move into town and go put your name on a list at the Department of Education. You must apply, and carefully consider which school out of hundreds to list first, second, third, up to twelve, realizing that if your first choice doesn't accept you, you run a risk with your following choices, as they might only accept students who listed THEM as number one. You also have the option of auditioning for performing arts schools, as my daughter has chosen to do. This comes with additional risks, however...if you list a performing arts school as your number one choice, you may jeopardize your chances of getting into a top academic school, where there are plenty of qualified students listing them first. Throw on top of it all that we've homeschooled since moving here, so nothing but my daughter's name shows up on the computer when an interested school might look at her records. If ever there's a time for a mom to become helicopterish it's now. How detailed should I make her portfolio? How can I ensure they see her standardized test scores? Is it too much to include work samples from every subject? And don't they need to know how many outside classes she has taken? How much community service she's done? How many shows she's been a part of? How well she's learned to navigate the subway system?

I digress. Clearly, this mom has been a little stressed out.

Back to the audition day. Cameron made her eggs, to fill her up in case it was a really long morning. I vocalized her in the closet, to keep the neighbors from complaining. We filled a bag with things to work on while waiting, water bottles and snacks in case hunger set in, extra pencils for her essay. One might think we were preparing for another hurricane.

We took a taxi to make sure we were plenty early. Third in line. Perfect. As more students arrived, I went over every possible scenario with Emma. What will you say if they ask this? What will you do if they stop you early? Are you sure you don't need another drink of water? 

Just as Emma reached her limit of Psycho-Mom involvement, a lady came out to welcome everyone. I felt relief knowing that I would get a great spot to wait, being third in line and all. So when I heard the lady's announcement, it took a moment to register.

"Parents, you may leave now. Your student will call you when the auditions are over."

I pretended not to notice how relieved Emma looked as I made sure she had plenty of water and pencils in her bag.

Cameron and I went to a diner for breakfast. I could hardly choke down my food, I was so nervous. Melinda's words came back to me. And I realized, I have a full-fledged control issue. She might be your baby, but she's practically grown. She still needs you, but not in that hovering, I'll-do-it-for-you kind of way. And I felt the strangest mixture of embarrassment, sadness, and relief.

When we picked her up, she was laughing out front with a group of new friends she'd made during the audition. They were comparing stories of how they had messed up, which dance steps were the hardest, how silly they felt answering certain questions. As we walked home and asked her how it went, it wasn't the judges' reactions or the mechanics of the day that she mentioned. It was how much fun the morning had been. 

And I made a mental note. To fight against maniacal overseeing of my children's lives. To resist helicopter-mom tendencies, no matter how strong the pull. To celebrate moments instead of trying to control them. To have more fun, and to know when to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

No Mistake Can Change Your Mind

So...while my own two kids are away at summer camp, I decided to volunteer in the South Bronx this week. A House on Beekman, my favorite place on earth next to my own home, is doing a four week day camp for kids in the neighborhood. For free. Learning, encouragement, food, friends...elements that make a summer quite different for these kids. Instead of being inside, watching Sponge Bob and eating chips, or being outside on the streets, with no supervision, these kids are here. Chanting "G-R-E-E-N! with the others in their group, creating tree sculptures in craft class, making peanut butter and chocolate "buckeyes" in culinary arts, playing Capture the Flag for the first time. And I've had the honor of being a part of Week One.

Today, my favorite little nine-year-old buddy from Team Green, my assigned group, decided to slap me in the face. He was mad that I made him stay outside to talk after punching a kid for taking his spot in line. He seemed to understand that an apology was necessary, but when the other kid came out, instead of apologizing, he felt threatened. Afraid that he wouldn't get to taste the buckeyes along with his fellow team members. So, he did what he felt was the appropriate expression for his fear and anger. He slapped his leader.

I must admit, I was devastated. I've invested in this kid all week, turning circles and coming up with creative ways to redirect and cultivate goodness, holding his hand and saving him seats and being his biggest fan.

It broke my heart to call the "heavy" for the week to come and have an intervention. I felt like a traitor, even though I knew I had to address the out-of-bounds behavior. All that progress, wiped away in an instant with one spontaneous reaction, lashing out at who-knows-what, striking whoever happened to be in the line of fire in a moment of intense emotion.

He came back a half hour later, apologizing for what he did. I received hugs and assurances that it wouldn't happen again. He grinned the biggest smile I've ever seen when the culinary arts leader assured him that his buckeye was intact, ready for tasting.

And then, on the way to the next rotation, I received this. A kiss, right on the mouth. A sentence that brought more than one tear to my eyes. "I can't believe I hurt my beautiful Sloan. I love you."

And the worship song from the morning came back to me. The lyrics that so many of these kids need to hear, over and over and over again. "No mistake can change your mind." A beautiful reminder that our Heavenly Father loves us so completely, so hard, so perfectly, He will not give up on us. Even when we repeat the words heard at home in anger, trying to elicit a reaction from everyone in earshot. Even when we punch and step on toes and yell at the top of our lungs because someone cut in line or took the pencil we wanted. Even when we slap our favorite leader, because she just happened to be in the way when our heart got all twisted up inside.

And it's only by God's grace that I kissed him back, right on his sweaty, soft forehead and let him know that I love him, too. And I'll continue to love him, even when he runs away from me and I have to run faster than these middle-aged legs would like, just to constrain him and calm him down. I'll love him when he shouts in my face, and cries like a baby, for seemingly no reason at all. I'll love him when I want to leave the room and jump on the subway and ride to my peaceful, orderly home without looking back.

Because that's how I'm loved. No mistake can change your mind. And I make just as many, in my own way.

Here's to grace.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

May I Suggest?

I recently heard a song that's helped to transform my thinking. Granted, I'd had a couple of glasses of wine by the time it rolled around during the concert. But it stuck, and I think it's quite a jewel.

I'd never heard of, and certainly never heard in concert, this incredible lady. Susan Werner. A classically trained singer that, during a Nanci Griffith concert, decided she had a lot more to say than the arias and recitatives allowed. And I, for one, am really glad she switched gears. 'Cause I got to hear this, live in concert.

May I Suggest-Susan Werner

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life
May I suggest
This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright
Just turn your head
And you'll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a world
That's been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize
A tender lover's smile
A tiny baby's hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
And I suggest
Yes I suggest to you
Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a hope
That's been expressed in you
The hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It's that you'll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what's yours to finally set right
And I suggest
Yes I suggest to you
I suggest this is the best part of your life

This is a song
Comes from the west to you
Comes from the west, comes from the slowly setting sun
With a request
With a request of you
To see how very short these endless days will run
And when they're gone
And when the dark descends
Oh we'd give anything for one more hour of light

And I suggest this is the best part of your life

Check it out on youtube. Susan Werner at the Kerrville Folk Festival.

Here's the thing. I think every season is supposed to be "the best part of your life." Because there's always beauty. There's always work to be done, and love to be had, and lessons to be learned. And if you believe in eternity, you look forward to the very best, forever and ever, with love beyond belief.

When I was 16, my royal blue $1200 VW bug, complete with handcranked sunroof, made many days the best part of my life. And the summer job I had in northwest Arkansas, at a beautiful camp, lifeguarding and playing piano and becoming a truer person thanks to good friends and even better mentors, and a God that knew I needed this time so badly. And of course, my old brown upright piano, completely out-of-tune, but a beautiful friend that offered me escape, anytime.

What makes today, as a middle aged mom with a lot left to learn, the best part of my life? I'll tell you.

This. After 20 years, we're finally figuring out what selflessness really looks like.

And this. I have been given two beautiful gifts I did not deserve.

And this. We get to mentor a special little lady that has filled our lives with joy and five-year-old wonder.

And this. I have been given the gift of true friendship, and have learned to be a friend in return.

And then there's this. These beautiful moms and babies have given life a different kind of meaning. Their courage inspires me daily.

Just a few of the things that qualify this season as the best. And I know the next season will be just as beautiful. 

Thanks, Susan, for a new perspective. I like it a lot.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Over-the-Shoulder Living

I love my dog. Never thought I'd utter that sentence, but it's true. She is a wacky, loving, quirky little package of wonder.

But taking Piper for a walk will definitely test the love limits.

Picture this. We head out of the apartment, Piper in my arms because she is too afraid to walk across the slippery floor from the elevator to the sidewalk. Once outside, I begin the pre-walk peptalk. Something like, "It's going to be so much fun! Doesn't it feel great out here? Isn't the fresh air nice? Look at all the doggies, walking so nicely! Walking is fun! Are you ready? Let's go! Let's walk!"

I put Piper down, and bam. Little furry butt hits the sidewalk. Black eyes stare up at me as if to say, "You really think it's going to be that easy? I may be small, but you are waaaay underestimating my stubbornness."

I try to be nice, encourage in my high-pitched, I'm-your-biggest-fan voice, but I always resort to the leash yank, which sort of drags the 5 pound body into movement, lest the toenails become permanently lodged into the concrete. 

We're on the move now, but the Piper-scan instantly kicks in. Eyes darting, back and forth, up and down, all around, checking for foreign objects. Traffic cone ahead, begin to veer left. Dog-walker coming around the corner...pack of 5. Most are small; dart to side of building and all should be well. Crossing street now-watch for manholes. Overly friendly lady with Great Dane ahead...honking taxi to the right...out-of-control kid on scooter...danger, danger! Abort mission! Jump up on human leg before untimely death occurs!

But Piper's greatest defense mechanism, without question, is the good ol' over-the-shoulder glance, every 4 or 5 steps. I'm not sure what she is afraid might be following her, but one thing's for sure-if it is following her, she will see it. Because she does NOT forget to look back, often.

They say that dogs and their humans begin to resemble each other after awhile. While I do not have jet-black eyes or snow-white hair (yet), I am afraid I look an awful lot like Piper when it comes to walking through life. Always watching for ways to self-protect, dodge the scary stuff, and my over-the-shoulder glances are so frequent, sometimes I wonder if I'm walking backward instead of forward.

My thought process usually goes something like, "If I hadn't decided to _______ then ___________ would never have happened. And if ___________ never had happened, then ____________ would never have been hurt by ____________ and _____________ might have had a chance to _____________. How did I end up here?"

Fill in the blanks...opportunities passed by, choices made, words I shouldn't have spoken, even more words that shouldn't have been left unsaid...these are a few of the subtitles that run like a ticker tape on my mental screen.

I remember a story from the Bible, about a woman that turned into a pillar of salt because she didn't obey when told not to look back at the city behind her. I realize this may be sacrilegious, but I would have filled the Morton's container long before I ever got past the front gate. No wonder that story gave me nightmares as a kid.

Here's the thing I'm learning...we were given memory for a reason. Probably for many reasons. We can't outrun them, we can't alter them, and we certainly can't make them disappear. As the incredible Brennan Manning says, "My experience has shown me that I all too often tend to deny that which lies behind, but as I still believe, that which is denied cannot be healed."

So, as with every decision we make in life, we have a choice. We can look behind and crane our necks and spend our days second-guessing every single second of our existence. We can beat our fists and wonder why and become as neurotic as my anxiety-ridden puppy.

Or...we can choose to look ahead. To walk with confidence, knowing that each tick of the clock is a second chance to do life differently, better. To hear the voice of the past as a gentle guide, not as a condemning torturer.

I recently bought a little statue of a frog. I keep it on my nightstand, to remind me of a beautiful froggy fact...apparently, frogs can only look forward. I'm sure they can hop around to turn the other direction if needed, but I guess those thick little necks don't allow for much head rotation. I can learn a thing or two from this bumpy, croaky little creature.

Off to take Piper for a walk. If you see me teaching her to hop and say "ribbit," you'll know why.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Next Level

Something happened in my heart today. A piece of it sank down to the next level. A deeper, richer, but definitely harder-to-navigate place. 

Let me back up.

It all began last Spring. Over plates of lasagna, we listened to a 23-year old girl outline her vision of what she believed was going to happen in the South Bronx, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the US. We sat with our jaws on the table as Sara told us her story of moving to the South Bronx-on purpose. Of sitting on her front steps with plates of cookies and bowls of homemade salsa, feeding anyone who passed by and would care to talk for a moment. Of becoming the object of endless stares, as kids and moms and gang leaders and policemen all looked and wondered the same thing...why? Why are you here? In this God-forsaken place that we can only dream of leaving someday? Why?

But Sara saw the neighborhood differently. It wasn't God-forsaken. It was beautiful. It was filled with children, desperate for healthy after-school snacks and sitting in laps and having stories read to them and someone to tuck them in bed at night. It was filled with moms, young and scared and alone and in need of encouragement and someone to say, "I believe in you. I believe you can raise this child with hope, and purpose, and I believe he will go to college one day, and change the world." 

It was filled with men, who in most cases had made really bad choices. Men who decided that out of the two paths that were presented to them as boys-be poor and helpless all your life, or join a gang and deal drugs and have people watching out for you all the time-it was a no-brainer. Men who wanted to change after the prison sentence was complete, but didn't know how in the world to begin. Men who cried over the kitchen table, wishing they could see a way out.

It was filled with people. Real people, like you and me. People who had been dealt a really hard hand in life. And Sara believed that these people deserved a neighborhood they could love, be proud of, want to stay in. And she believed that with some help and support, she could begin to make that dream a reality.

"How?" we asked. "Where do you start?"

"With the babies," Sara said.

And she swiftly outlined her plan to begin Babies 101, a summer program for pregnant moms. A place to come for advice, encouragement, nutrition information, and the grand finale, a baby shower at the conclusion of the class, with everything you might need for a new bundle of joy.

"I want to grab hold of these kids when they are in their mother's wombs, and not let go until they are college graduates." 

The sincerity and faith and absolute resolve in Sara's voice and eyes made me believe. It might be possible.

"My next goal is to begin a Mommy and Me class, once the babies are born. Starting in the fall, and running the length of the school year, I want these moms to hear about infant development and growth and brain research and how they have the most important job in the world as their child's first teacher. My only challenge is that I don't have someone to lead the class."

My gulp must have been audible. My husband's look at me must have been telling. You see, Sara knew nothing about my background. She didn't know that I love kids. So much. And that I love teaching. And music. And that some of my favorite teaching moments happened with really little ones, including my own two daughters, researching and experimenting with ways that they learn best. And that in every case, I learned that music is a perfect vehicle to facilitate growth.

Fast forward to two days ago. Tuesday, our first Mommy and Me class. Had ten women signed up, and when six actually made it on a stormy morning, I was thrilled. We talked. We laughed. We began to create bonds. We sang. We bounced babies on our knees and one lady cried as she learned her first lullaby. No one ever sang her a lullaby, in her whole life. And it was thrilling to be able to give that gift to her little boys. We read Goodnight, Moon and when I revealed to them that someone had donated board books for each book we would be reading, enough to build their own personal library for their babies, they were elated. I couldn't speak for about an hour, I was so overcome with the beauty that had transpired in this tiny South Bronx room.

I came home on an absolute high, giddy with anticipation for today's class.

I got there early, excited to continue where we left off. One mom came in with her little 9-month old, about 15 minutes late. "It's OK," I told myself. "They'll come back." 

An hour later, another mom arrived. I was glad to see it was the lullaby lady. 

With only 30 minutes left in the class, two more moms came in, one brand new. We welcomed her, and she seemed really glad to be there. 

I did my best to whittle my two-hour plan down to bits and pieces that would accommodate our tiny, sporadic group. And while there were great moments, I felt a strange, sinking feeling inside. 

As we wrapped up and dismissed, an older lady from the neighborhood came in to talk to me. I told her how excited I was to have the new mom join us. She looked at me with knowing eyes, and began to tell me the young mom's story.

She was 16 years old. Her 10-month old daughter's father was 36. And extremely abusive. I remembered the cracked tooth, right in front, when she smiled. And my heart sank.

While we were talking, a mom from the Tuesday class came in. Class had been over for half an hour. She wanted her pack of diapers that we had promised to give at the end of each class.

I felt a little odd, but as I looked at her tiny baby, of course I couldn't refuse. She was grateful, and promised to come next week.

As she left, I looked up into those knowing eyes, again. Heard about crack addiction. And how the supplies we were giving were being sold at night, for drug money. My heart sank again, deeper this time.

I felt angry at myself...for being so Pollyanna and optimistic that I forgot. Forgot how years and years of one hopeless situation after another could easily lead to addiction and abuse. Forgot how little I understand about these kind of fears: electricity being turned off, because the bill's not paid. Rent coming due, and with nothing to produce, the local shelter is the only alternative. Being unqualified for any decent job, leaving prostitution or drug-dealing as the only viable alternative. 

And I realized, I hadn't really given myself to this. Or these women, or babies. Or this neighborhood. I had soaked in the beauty...the Monday night "family dinners" at Sara's place, where anyone who wanted could come and eat and have someone to talk to...the 5-year old girl who made such an impression on my family that she's become a regular house guest...the pre-teens that trust my daughters implicitly and ask them for advice. These are the moments I chose to see. 

But, while those moments count immensely, my heart had to sink down, lower, harder, to understand what these women are facing, day after day. To really care, I must wear the pain, the ugly, the sad, the incomprehensible. Only then will I be able to make any kind of difference in a life. And while deeper can be scary, it also opens up oceans of perspective. I don't want to live shallow.

So, I will return next Tuesday, a changed person. Still excited about brain research and lullabies. But stronger, and wiser, and hopefully ready to tackle the hard stuff with resolve and unending sources of love.

I'm grateful for the chance to learn about courage from Sara, almost half my age. Here's to diving deep...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fellow Man Musings

Last week, the girls and I went to the Norwegian Consulate in Manhattan to sign a condolence book for families of victims from Norway's recent tragedies. We entered the crowded waiting area, assuming these people were waiting on documentation or appointments with officials. A kind Norwegian man approached me and I explained to him that we were there to sign the book. With tears in his eyes, he nodded toward the line of people around the room. 

"They have all come to do the same thing. We never dreamed so many people would show up. We have decided to extend our hours for the remainder of the week to accomodate the many people who want to express their concern." 

As we took our place in the long line, I glanced at the others who were waiting. Every ethnicity I could imagine was represented, from young to old, flip flops to business suits, economically challenged to extremely wealthy. All there for one show support for a nation in desperate sorrow. I was overwhelmed by this outward display of care for the proverbial “fellow man.”

At one point a diplomat from another country came in. We had been told that when he arrived, he would be taken to the front of the line, as he is extremely busy and couldn’t afford to wait for an hour-plus. But when this offer was extended, he refused.

“I will wait with everyone else. I am no more important than anyone in this room.”

My teenage daughters were listening intently. His words clearly made a mark on them, as evidenced by their conversation at dinner that evening.

“I wish our leaders could act a little more like that man today,” Abby remarked. When asked what she meant, she replied, “Do you think there would be this much arguing over how to pay off our country’s debt if they were saying, ‘I am no more important than anyone in this room?’ Maybe if they cared as much about other people as they do about getting reelected we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess in the first place.”

Then the girls took it a step further, wondering if it were a law in America to do caring acts for other people for at least an hour a week, what would our country be like? What if everyone tried to act more like that man in the consulate’s office? 

I know a 24-year-old woman who replaced her dream of being on Broadway with a dream to transform the neighborhood of the South Bronx. That’s fellow-man mindedness. I know a lady in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, whose decision to take in four children from the street eventually turned into an orphanage, caring for 100+ children. That’s fellow-man mindedness. I know people who give up days, even weeks of their well-earned vacations to travel all over the globe for various causes...clean water, health care, education...all in the name of caring for their fellow man.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I want to adopt this fellow-man mentality. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in my own little selfish world. The view’s a lot nicer when I choose to zoom out and notice the lines that connect us all to one another. 

In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in doing good to their fellow men.” Marcus Tullius Cicero penned these words in Ancient Rome, but I can just as well imagine him writing them today in Uganda, or the South Bronx, or a hurting community in Norway...or talking them over with a certain diplomat in Manhattan.

Monday, May 9, 2011


So, today my 14-year old daughter announced, "Mom, I just finished my grammar curriculum. And I only have one lesson left in my French book. And, don't forget that I'm turning 15 on Sunday."


Then, my 12-year old daughter said, "I just have four lessons left in math."

The subject that has been the cause of daily tears, angst, and occasional curse words.

And I looked through all of our curriculum and realized, we are almost finished! A whole school year, almost complete!

Now, for all of you lifelong teachers, this is most likely second-nature for you. Of course, after a whole year of lessons, labs, demonstrations and tests, it is of course time to wave goodbye to the past school year and begin planning for the next. But for me, the freshman homeschool mom who decided that being a music teacher qualified me to teach my own middle and high school children, this is a monumental day. After a year of high hopes that often dwindled to thoughts of, "Well, at least she is young for her age...if she ends up having to repeat a grade level, no one will even know..." this is a great day. We are actually completing some things. And while I didn't always work in the applicable field trip at the right time ("What??? We're already to the Rise of Rome and we never made it to the Ancient Egypt exhibition at the museum??) I can also see that we've actually made...dare I say it...progress.

We know a lot more about Shakespeare. And fractions. Predicate adjectives, and complex sentences. And while it might not have been on our standardized tests, we've also figured out how to transfer to the express subway train when it makes sense. And when to stay put on the local because the crowds are so bad, you might get squished to death. We know our way around Central Park. And we know a lot, LOT, more about each other.

Progress is a funny word. Defined as, "movement, development or growth," I realize that we have, indeed, made a lot of progress over this first year of homeschooling, despite all of my shortcomings as a teacher. I will never forget these days of learning, both inside our little apartment walls, and within the wide boundaries of this great, great city.

My Abby will be leaving next year, to make her way at LaGuardia Arts High School. I will miss her greatly, and admire the independent learner she has become.

My Emma will remain with me at least another year, and I am extremely happy about this. I think Piper, our puppy, would have emotional distress if both girls went away to school at once. (OK, it's me that would have the emotional distress.)

Off to plan how to get through those final four math lessons...

Here's to progress. Cheers.